Matters of Public Importance - Family Court

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (16:36): I thank Senator Burston for raising this matter of public importance regarding the Family Law Act, because this is of course an ongoing matter of great public importance. Having said that, I might say to the mover that it is perhaps a fraction early or a fraction superfluous, because the terms of reference for the Australian Law Reform Commission's review will be announced by the end of this month. So, whilst this debate today will signify the urgency and that this chamber appreciates the need for this review, it is happening and will happen.

I will just mention that this is an area to which the government has given a lot of attention. In May this year $26.8 million was announced as a package of measures to provide additional support for our family law system. That comprised $12.7 million to establish the parenting management hearings, $10.7 million in new funding for the family law courts to engage additional family consultants, another almost $3½ million to expand the domestic violence unit's program and, as I mentioned before, the comprehensive review of the family law system to be done by the Australian Law Reform Commission. The government will be directing the commission to undertake the first comprehensive review of the family law system since the commencement of the Family Law Act.

I'm one of the few, in my case former, practitioners who still remember the old Matrimonial Causes Act, which pre-dated the Family Law Act. I remember that to get a dissolution of a marriage in those days you more or less had to crawl through a window with a camera to catch people in compromising situations to substantiate the cause for the dissolution of the marriage. Anyone who practised in that area at that time—not that it was a big part of my practice—had to do those things or engage private detectives to do it.

So, the Family Law Act was an improvement, but I smile to myself these days when I hear of the complexity in the family law system, because originally Mr Whitlam announced that this was to be a system in which you didn't need lawyers. In fact, there were, I think, rules—or if not rules it was certainly talked about—that lawyers would be banned from dealing with the Family Law Act, because it was to be something whereby the parties would get together with some counsellors and everything would be solved and questions of divorce and settlements and particularly children would all be worked out in a collegiate manner. But of course that didn't happen. Practitioners in the field today tell me this is one of the most complicated areas of law and one that does, as has been mentioned, engage the courts in a huge amount of time. It has been mentioned that there are judges awaiting appointment. Senator Brandis rightly addresses this at estimates. It's always raised at estimates. Senator Brandis has given indications of appointments being made and, in some cases, the reasons they have not been made. I know that this is foremost in Senator Brandis's mind and that appointments will continue to be made as appropriate and as necessary.

This review will focus on ensuring that the family law system meets the contemporary needs of families and effectively addresses family violence and child abuse. I guess these problems were always around but it does seem to me that we as a society are less tolerant and less concerned, and less able to adjust our own behaviours, to ensure that we can live with people who we have entered into a legal arrangement with, and the children who are the offspring of those arrangements. It just seems that society has got worse and worse and worse when it comes to the breakdown of relationships and the way children are treated. After the Family Law Act had been in place for some time I did a little bit of family law work but quickly got out of it because I couldn't, even in those days, cope with the fact that many parents would use the children simply as a weapon to attack the other party. It's a very difficult area of law and it can be quite emotional. What has gone wrong with society as a whole is perhaps more the question we should be asking in debates like this one. The more 'relaxed' lifestyle we have, the less tolerance we have for discipline and the norms of life, seems to breed these situations where, unfortunately, many families, many children, live in crisis, and one can only think that society has gone backwards.

I return to the budget measures. Additional funding of $14 million over three years will be provided from the Public Service Modernisation Fund to transform and digitise processes for the Federal Court, the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court, including lodgement of case management, ensuring the courts' ongoing financial sustainability. These improvements in the processes we hope will deal with the backlog in the Family Court. The government is committed to ensuring that family courts have the resources they need to provide access to justice and to help families resolve their disputes with a minimum of delay. We continue, as a government, to monitor the ongoing resourcing and funding of federal courts to ensure that families are supported in difficult times. The Chief Justice of the Family Court and the Chief Judge of the Federal Circuit Court are responsible for allocating available judicial resources, and I know that's something that is often raised in the budget estimates, rightly, by senators who have indicated an interest in this area.

Prior to the 2015-16 budget, family courts were projecting massive deficits of more than $44 million over the forward estimates. Without the 2015-16 budget rescue package, major cuts to frontline court services would have been inevitable. There have been ongoing savings from new administrative arrangements, and the government is pleased to note that almost $10 million over six financial years to 2020-21 and $5.4 million annually after that time are being reinvested. These are savings made by government initiatives. They are being re-invested into the federal courts to enhance their capacity to provide services, particularly in family law.

Again, I say thanks to Senator Burston for raising this important matter in this matter of public importance debate. But, as I say, the basis of the motion before the Senate is to finalise the terms of reference for the Australian Law Reform Commission's review. That is happening as we speak. I'd be very confident that, within the next few weeks, those terms of reference will be published and the commission can start its valuable work.

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