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Budget provides ‘positive outcome’ for family law matters

Two family law partners have discussed the positive investments made for the family law sector in the 2023–24 federal budget. The Law Council of Australia also highlighted the need for additional funding for the legal assistance sector.

user iconJess Feyder 17 May 2023 Big Law
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“The federal government seems to have confirmed the support for key initiatives, especially in family violence — which is a big priority for the government,” stated Susan Warda, a partner and family law accredited specialist at Mills Oakley.

Gabriella Pomare, partner in family law at the Norton Law Group, also spoke to Lawyers Weekly.

“I think there are some really positive takeaways from the [2023]–24 federal budget which will beneficially impact the family law system,” stated Ms Pomare.


Family and domestic violence support

Almost $590 million was announced to further the National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children.

$194 million of the funding is being dedicated to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Action Plan, with $68.6 million pledged to expand the legal and non-legal family violence support for First Nations women and children.

“This funding will allow the court to continue to provide culturally safe services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander victim-survivors of family violence,” noted Ms Warda.

Ms Warda commented on the effectiveness of the Evatt list, a domestic and family violence screening process implemented as part of the Lighthouse Project, which was introduced by the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (FCFCOA) at the end of last year.

“The case management we’re seeing is a really good outcome for families where there are safety concerns,” noted Ms Warda.

“Its benefits are already playing out,” she noted. “If you speak to family lawyers like myself, they will tell you that it’s working in a practical way.”

“So far, the court is working really quickly, outcomes are moving, and people are getting decisions quickly,” she noted.

“Some lawyers will tell you we can’t move as fast as the courts, we are trying to keep up with these timetables that are very swift.”

Ms Pomare also commented that it is positive that the Lighthouse Project is being continued and noted that it “is imperative to addressing family violence and identifying risks early in the process and thereafter providing appropriate support to vulnerable parties”.

Lawyers Weekly asked Ms Warda if, over her 30 years in family law, she has seen a significant increase in protections for victims of domestic violence and children.

“Absolutely,” she answered, “as soon as you commence proceedings in the Family Court, and you set out any allegation of family violence, or if there are safety concerns, your client receives a questionnaire to complete from the court, where the screening process happens really quickly”.

International child abduction matters

Other key funding allocation included the investment of $18.4 million to enhance and improve the implementation of the Hague Convention.

This is “an issue which is really important presently with increased rates of international child abduction”, noted Ms Pomare.

Of the amount allocated, “$7.4 million will assist parties with obtaining legal representation, $4.7 million will improve the Attorneys-General’s Department with obtaining and providing evidence as to family violence issues in Hague matters, and $5.3 million is being applied towards early dispute resolution processes,” outlined Ms Pomare.

Ms Warda commented: “This funding is really useful.

“Usually, Hague matters go to trial, so the funding will try to intervene in those Hague matters where safety of women and children is an issue.”

“Part of the funding will hopefully improve the capability of the A-G Department to be able to make evidence about family violence available to the court in those Hague Convention cases,” she noted.

Dispute resolution services

The Albanese government announced an investment of $46.5 million to expand programs and initiatives in the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (FCFCOA).

“[This] will assist parties in resolving their matters in a more cost-effective and quicker manner,” explained Ms Pomare.

Most relevantly, $13.4 million will be invested to continue expanding the dispute resolution services offered by the FCFCOA,” outlined Ms Pomare.

A big part of this is the involvement of court child experts in parenting matters.”

“It is hoped that by offering more tailored and expansive dispute resolution pathways for parties, matters can be resolved quicker, thereby freeing up judge’s dockets and providing more time for urgent and final matters to be heard more efficiently,” noted Ms Pomare.

Property settlements

$33.1 million has been dedicated towards the continued rollout of the PPP500 program — an initiative that assists with smaller property settlement pools so that a resolution is reached faster and in a cost-efficient way.

The program is for couples arguing over property bills of less than $500,000.

“The government is putting in money over the next four years to keep the program going,” noted Ms Warda.

“The idea is to try to resolve those matters as quickly as possible to preserve assets.”

Ms Warda reflected on the significance of the funding announcements in the budget, as coupled with legislative changes set to arrive in family law.

“I think that this budget provides a really positive outcome,” said Ms Warda.

“But I’m not looking just at the budget in isolation; I’m looking at it coupled with the proposed amendments to family law, and parenting legislation that the government is also intending on introducing.”

“The Albanese government intends on getting its vote on family law parenting amendments, and they are going to bring significant changes — probably the biggest changes we’ve seen since 2007,” noted Ms Warda.

“We’ll need to watch this space carefully.”

The Law Council of Australia (LCA) spoke out in response to the budget, noting that there was funding missing for the legal assistance sector.

“By failing to adequately fund the legal assistance sector, the government has not met its own goals,” the LCA said in a statement.

“The budget fails to recognise the fundamental role of legal assistance services in supporting Australians when crisis hits,” stated LCA president Luke Murphy.

“Funding under successive governments has not kept pace with demand, and in some cases, real funding for these services is decreasing.

“Tonight’s budget is a missed opportunity to address this growing problem.”

“Failure to provide adequate funding means that Australians, particularly those most impacted by the current economic circumstances, are being turned away and cannot access the services they need,” he said.

However, the LCA funding for Family Violence Prevention Legal Services was due to expire at the end of the financial year, so it was an important investment made in the budget to ensure it could continue providing these services.