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Dreyfus: FCFCOA judiciary ‘plays a critical role in our legal system’

In light of new family law reforms, the Attorney-General has emphasised the importance of combating the “increasing evidence of family violence” across the country.

user iconLauren Croft 26 June 2024 The Bar
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Following significant reforms as part of the Family Law Amendment Act 2023, in a recent address at the 2024 Judicial Plenary of the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (FCFCOA), Attorney-General the Honourable Mark Dreyfus KC MP has praised the ongoing response of the courts and judiciary to rising family violence in Australia.

This follows remarks Dreyfus made earlier this year, when he said that “there is a crisis of male violence in Australia” and that ongoing instances of violence against women offer “the daily, weekly, monthly reminder that we have to do more”.

Dreyfus’ plenary address comes six weeks since the first set of family law reforms brought forward by the Albanese government came into effect – changes the AG said “have been long needed”.

 
 

“Reforms of this scale occur once or twice in a generation, and of course, with significant change comes a period of adjustment. It is almost 50 years since the Family Law Act itself was passed, rolling out what was at that time the deeply divisive concept of no-fault divorce.

“These days, it would be inconceivable to expect parties to a divorce application to demonstrate proof of infidelity or neglect. We take it as given that it is enough for a party to claim that the marriage has irretrievably broken down,” AG Dreyfus said.

“What can at first seem like large changes to some, soon become well-accepted aspects of family law. It is a necessity that our legal systems adapt to meet the evolving needs of the Australian people, and change course when evidence tells us that we can do better.”

These reforms, Dreyfus said, were of “high priority” for the government and an important part of making the family law system “simpler and safer”.

“For years, parliamentary inquiries, family law experts and women and children’s safety advocates raised concerns that the presumption of equal shared parental responsibility and related mandatory time considerations in the Family Law Act were confusing and easily misunderstood,” he said.

“For some parents trying to determine arrangements in the shadow of the law, the provisions resulted in vulnerable parties agreeing to unsafe or unfair parenting arrangements. At times, they have also exacerbated situations of conflict, control and family violence for women.

“The Family Law Amendment Act responds to those concerns. It also implements a significant number of other well-considered recommendations aimed at improving the experiences of children in contact with the family law system. The reforms establish a clearer and simpler parenting framework by repealing the presumption of equal shared parental responsibility and the associated requirements for courts to consider specific time arrangements.

The reforms also introduce a statutory requirement for independent children’s lawyers to meet with and seek the views of children to ensure the views of children in family court matters can be heard.

The Family Law Amendment (Information Sharing) Act also came into effect in May, and Dreyfus said that, similarly, the aim of these reforms is to “ultimately assist decision making that promotes the best interests of children”.

“These law changes build on the success of the Co-location Program, which has seen child protection and policing officials from most jurisdictions co-located within family court registries,” Dreyfus said.

“Working in step with these co-located officials, the Information Sharing Act will ensure the courts can access a greater range of critical family violence, child abuse and neglect information from state and territory police, child protection and firearms agencies.

A second tranche of family law reform is also underway, focused on property matters and providing better recognition of the economic consequences of family violence in property settlements.

“The proposed reforms will establish the effect of family violence as a factor to be considered in the assessment of contributions and current and future circumstances, where relevant. This will be clear on the face of the legislation, benefiting both those resolving their dispute in the court system or negotiating resolution outside of court,” the Attorney-General said.

“The reforms will also ensure separating couples better understand the steps the court takes when determining a property settlement, by setting these steps out in the Family Law Act. This will provide important guidance for those seeking a property settlement.”

Implementing new reforms to combat issues stemming from family violence is also of the utmost importance moving forward, added Dreyfus.

“It has been encouraging to witness how courts and the judiciary have responded over time to the increasing evidence of family violence in our communities. From the development of the Evatt List and the Lighthouse Project, to the strong expectations placed on judicial officers to undertake family violence training, to the symposium the Chief Justice hosted this year, it is evidence of an institution adapting to clear needs within Australian society.

“Ultimately, we hope that these reforms will assist you in delivering outcomes that are just, safe and simple. Each of you here today plays a critical role in our legal system,” Dreyfus said.