Shared parenting laws should be changed to remove the legislative requirement to consider equal time arrangements, according to an accredited family law specialist.
In his paper "Parenting Laws - is there a case for reform?", family lawyer Paul Boers from Craddock Murray Neumann Lawyers, drew upon recent social science research examining the impact on children of shared parenting laws, which came into effect in 2006, and outlined why the current legislation needs to be reformed.
Boers argued that the legislative requirement for considering an equal time arrangement should be removed altogether, unless it has been requested by one of the parents. He proposes that the child's specific needs should serve as a starting point.
"One particularly concerning finding is that families where violence had occurred were no less likely to have shared care time arrangements imposed than those where violence had not occurred, for various reasons which the legislation does not adequately address," Boers said.
"The legislation should be amended to require consideration of different types of family violence and their impact on the child, as well as developmental considerations and the impact on children of ongoing inter-parental conflict."
According to Boers, many professionals in the family law system believe negotiation and litigation over parenting arrangements has become more focused on parents' rights, rather that the needs of the children. In particular, Boers notes that since the reforms were introduced, there has been an increase in the number of children living in shared care time arrangements in circumstances of high conflict.
"One of the problems with the legislation is the way in which equal shared parenting responsibility is perceived to be linked to care time by some in the community," Boers said. "To put it simply, more time with either parent does not necessarily equate to better outcomes for children."
According to Boers, the research, conducted by Professor Richard Chisholm, Dr Jennifer McIntosh, Federal Magistrate Dr Tom Altobelli and the Australian Institute of Family Studies, indicates three general scenarios in which equal time arrangements can be detrimental to children's wellbeing and development. This includes situations where there are high levels of inter-parental conflict, a history of some type of family violence and when very young children are forming their primary attachments.
The complexity of the legislation, according to Boers, obscures the best interests of the child and leads to increased difficulties for professionals working with parents to achieve child focused arrangements. He said cases are taking longer to prepare, judgments are more complex and parents are finding it more difficult to understand what the law actually says.
"Shifting our focus back to the needs of the child can only result in improved outcomes for children whose parents have separated."