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Federal Government legislation putting the safety of women and children experiencing family violence at risk

Women’s Legal Services Australia (WLSA) calls on the Federal Attorney-General to prioritise the safety of women and kids affected by domestic violence in proposed reforms to the family law system.

The Federal Attorney-General today introduced in the Senate legislation aimed at significantly reforming the family law system. Under these proposed reforms, self-represented parents in Parramatta and one other location will be able to have their parenting disputes resolved through a pilot tribunal program known as “parenting management hearings”.

Parents will need special permission to have a lawyer represent them at a hearing, and the hearings will deal with complex matters involving family violence and child abuse. Decisions made at the hearings are binding on parents.

WLSA has concerns regarding how the planned changes may impact women and their children affected by domestic violence. WLSA Representative and CEO of Women’s Legal Service Queensland, Angela Lynch says:

“We know at least 50% of matters that go before the family court involve domestic violence. In these cases there is an unequal power balance. When facing her abuser in this context a woman faces a disadvantage”

“A fundamental way that victims can be protected is by having lawyers advocating for them in hearings instead of having to deal directly with their abuser.”

Ms Lynch acknowledges that with lengthy Family Court of Australia waiting periods, alternative ways of responding to these issues must be explored.

“We need to reform the family court system by putting the safety of women at the forefront of any reforms. We can see the bill goes some way to respond to the risks faced by women and children experiencing violence but also creates barriers to a fundamental protection – legal representation.”

You can read our media release in response to the announcement here

You can read the Government’s announcement here

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An end to direct questioning by abusive partners in family law proceedings

Women’s Legal Services Australia (WLSA) welcomes the Australian Government’s announcement that it will be introducing legislation to amend the Family Law Act 1975 to prohibit the direct cross-examination of victims of violence in family law proceedings.

Being directly questioned in court by an abusive ex-partner is not only traumatising it also affects the victim’s ability to give evidence.  This can prevent important information being made available to the court to protect children from violence in family law proceedings. Ending the cross-examination by violent ex-partners is a practical and important step to empower victims to give evidence without fear.

WLSA looks forwards to further detail being provided about the implementation of these critically important amendments, including in relation to how the reforms will be funded.  Proper funding to implement these amendments will be essential to success.

The Government has also announced additional funding for Community Legal Centres, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services and the family law court system. WLSA welcomes greater investment in these areas, particularly additional funding for appropriately skilled family consultants in family law matters and for additional domestic units to deliver integrated specialist legal and social support to survivors of family violence. We look forward to hearing more detail in relation to these announcements.

The Government also announced a comprehensive review into the Family Law Act 1975, to be conducted by the Australian Law Reform Commission. WLSA is interested in learning more details about the proposed review and urges genuine consultation with the sector, in particular those organisations working on the front line with survivors of family violence, from the outset. The voices of women and children affected by violence must be strongly represented in the review process.

You can read our media release in response to the announcement here

You can read the Australian Government’s announcement here

Help us stop cuts to a vital service for family violence survivors – community legal centres

Community Legal Centres (CLCs) are a critical, potentially life-saving, service for many women trying to escape an abusive partner. They are one important part of the service mix available for family violence survivors, and we support their expansion in step 3(b) of our Safety First Plan.

Yet inadequate funding already forces Centres to turn away 160,000 people a year – many of them women affected by family violence.

The Turnbull Government is planning to cut a whopping 30% of Community Legal Centres’ funding from 1 July 2017.

Rosie Batty, family violence survivors, law school deans, federal parliamentarians including those from Labor, the Greens, as well as Jacqui Lambie and Derryn Hinch, and family violence services are all calling for the government to reverse this devastating cut. So far, the government hasn’t listened.

Help us take action to try and stop this.

  • Support the #equaljustice campaign – print an #equaljustice placard, take a photo with it, and share it on Twitter and Facebook.
  • Stand with Rosie and the Never Alone Foundation by adding your signature to Rosie’s letter to the Prime Minister asking him to reverse these proposed funding cuts.
  • Sign the Fair Agenda petition calling on the Australian government to stop the 30% funding cuts to community legal centres slated for 1 July 2017.
  • Email your concerns to your local senator using this Fair Agenda tool.
  • Share this page with your networks and friends and ask them to sign Rosie’s letter and join the Fair Agenda campaign

Federal parliamentary inquiry on safety in family law for those affected by family violence

The federal House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy & Legal Affairs has announced an inquiry on how the family law system could be improved to ensure the safety of those affected by family violence. Further details are available here.

Why is this important?

This is an important opportunity for family violence survivors’ voices to be heard by the federal government on what could be done to fix a broken system.

If survivors’ voices are not heard through this process, there is a danger that other voices will dominate.

The Terms of Reference focus on many important issues of safety in family law in the Safety First 5-step Plan. For the detail – see below.

The inquiry Principles also make clear that the Committee will: work to avoid duplication with previous family law inquiries and commissions; have particular regard to the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and other disadvantaged groups; and, conduct the inquiry in a manner which does not re-traumatise people who have been affected by family violence.

What can you do?

For community members

We call on family violence survivors who have been through the family law process to:

  • complete this anonymous survey by 30 June 2017
  • if you feel comfortable to do so – express your interest in making a community statement (this would be by telephone)
  • if you feel comfortable to do so – make a written submission by 3 May 2017

If you do not feel confident to do the above – speak to your local Women’s Legal Service about getting support in participating.

For service providers

We call on family violence and community service providers to:

  • encourage all of your family violence survivor clients to participate in this process, where appropriate, and provide them with support to do so if necessary
  • make a written submission
  • let other community services working with family violence survivors know about this opportunity by email and social media, and encourage them to ask their clients to participate, and to participate themselves

The details – how is the Safety First Plan relevant?

The Terms of Reference ask questions on many important issues addressed in the Safety First 5-step Plan. They include:

1. How can the family law system more quickly and effectively ensure the safety of people who are or may be affected by family violence?

This includes how the family law system could better facilitate the early identification of and response to family violence.

And – what legal and non-legal support services are required to support the early identification of and response to family violence?

> See Step 1 of the Safety First Plan, which calls for early risk assessment by family law registries in family violence cases

2. How can we make sure that consent orders made by family law courts support the safety of family members?

> See Step 3a of the Safety First Plan, on the need for legally assisted dispute resolution in family violence cases.

Many victim survivors of violence feel pressured to enter into consent orders following family dispute resolution that they feel are not in the best interests of the child and do not adequately take into consideration family violence concerns. If legally represented this is in circumstances where their lawyer may not have had the opportunity or the time to obtain full instructions regarding the violence.

> See Step 2c of the Safety First Plan, on the need for an end to direct cross-examination of family violence survivors by their abusers in the family courts.

Further, family violence victim survivors are more likely to consent to court orders which are not in the best interests of the child or which do not adequately address family violence concerns, if they fear they will have to endure direct cross-examination, or are fatigued due to a lengthy court proceeding.

3. How can the family law system better support families before the courts where one or more party is self-represented, and where there are allegations or findings of family violence?

> See Step 2c of the Safety First Plan, on the need for an end to direct cross-examination of family violence survivors by their abusers in the family courts.

4. How can the family law system better support people who have been subjected to family violence to recover financially?

This includes considering the extent to which family violence should be taken into account in the making of property division orders.

> See Step 4 of the Safety First Plan, on (a) promoting early resolution of small property pool matters (b) requiring courts to consider family violence when determining a property division and (c) simplifying court processes and forms to make them more accessible.

5. How could the capacity of all family law professionals—including judges, lawyers, registrars, family dispute resolution practitioners and family report writers—be strengthened in relation to matters concerning family violence?

> See Step 5 of the Safety First Plan, on (a) a mandatory national accreditation and monitoring scheme for family report writers with mandatory family violence training for writers (b) a comprehensive family violence training package for judges and (c) a comprehensive family violence training program for lawyers.

6. What is the potential for a national approach for the administration and enforcement of personal safety intervention orders?

Calling on COAG to put safety in family law at top of its agenda

Women’s Legal Services Australia (WLSA) has written to all state and territory leaders asking them to address safety in family law at the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) meeting tomorrow.

Family violence cannot be taken seriously without taking family law seriously. This is something that COAG – all state, territory, and federal governments – must consider and address.

One urgent priority is ending the direct cross-examination of family violence victims by their abusers in the family law system. This is something that can be changed now.

Direct cross-examination re-traumatises victims and limits evidence in relation to safety that comes before the courts. This risks court decisions being made that put children at risk of violence. Everyone knows there is no excuse for it and we are calling on all states and territories to back us up at COAG.

The family law system is full of hard working, passionate advocates and legal professionals. However, structural and institutional problems are consistently contributing to decisions that put people at increased risk of violence and abuse.

This means that when women and children flee a violent relationship, the family law system can be a hindrance rather than a help and that can result in them being placed in greater danger.

On 25 November 2016, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was asked by Opposition Leader Bill Shorten in Parliament about how he intended to end direct cross-examination. Prime Minister Turnbull answered that “addressing domestic violence is a priority for all of us. We have to stop it. Violence against women and children is utterly unacceptable.”

It is for these very reasons that WLSA calls on all governments to work together to end direct cross-examination of vulnerable witnesses in family courts.

Measures to protect victims from direct cross examination was supported by South Australian and Victorian Premiers at the COAG family violence summit on 27-28 October 2016, as well as in recent announcements by the federal opposition leader and the Family Court on its family violence best practice principles.

Even one case of a victim being directly cross-examined, or one family in which a court doesn’t hear a victim’s concerns about the safety of children due to fear, is one too many.

See our media release on this issue here.

ALP cross-examination announcement welcome, Turnbull government must now prioritise safety in family law

Women’s Legal Services Australia (WLSA) welcomes the commitment from the federal Labor opposition to prevent domestic violence victims being cross-examined in court by their abusers in the family law system.

Protecting victims from direct cross-examination by their abusers will not only reduce trauma for those women but also improve justice outcomes for everyone involved.

With the Labor opposition and the Greens supportive of reform, action can be taken quickly if the Prime Minister and his Attorney General prioritise this.

Allowing evidence to be delivered without fear or intimidation will improve the evidence going before the courts and ensure they have all the information they need before them to make the best decisions that are safe for women and children.

While this announcement is a fantastic step in the right direction, we remain concerned that direct cross examination will still be possible if court officers are given the final say. An outright ban such as that which exists in the Victorian Family Violence Prevention Act 2008 (at sections 70 and 71) is preferable and possible.

We are calling on the entire parliament to progress the reforms identified in our 5-step plan to put safety first in family law.

How can you take action? Rosie and WLSA have developed a quick and easy form for you to send a message to the Attorney General, Prime Minister and Opposition Leader asking them to change the Family Law Act to empower victims to give evidence without fear.

Our full media release is available here.

Family violence summit: WLSA & Rosie Batty call for cross examination outcome

Women’s Legal Services Australia and Rosie Batty have called for this week’s family violence summit to address issues within the family law system that put women and children at further risk of violence.

Of particular concern is the fact that victims can still be cross examined by abusers in the system, which not only causes trauma but can impede evidence and lead to bad decisions that put children at risk.

Ms Batty has been working with Women’s Legal Services Australia to promote a 5-step plan to put safety first in family law and will attend the summit.

“I’m calling on all states and territories to help me put the cross examination of victims by abusers on the agenda at the COAG Family Violence Summit,” said Ms Batty.

“The cross examination issue is urgent and easily fixed. Women are being traumatised in the system right now and this is leading to adverse outcomes for children as well.

“There are still many issues with the family law system that put women and children in danger. But recently it’s become clear to me that this problem in particular is so urgent that we need to get focused.

“The COAG Summit is the perfect time to raise awareness of this issue. People are shocked to hear this is still going on.

Agata Wierzbowski, National Law Reform Coordinator for Women’s Legal Services Australia said:

“As the Family Law Council has stated, when people aren’t represented then family courts are less likely to get the evidence needed to keep children safe.”

“In more than half of the parenting cases that come before the family courts, one or both parties are unrepresented for some or all of the proceedings.

“Being directly questioned in court by an abusive ex-partner is not only traumatising, it can also affect the victim’s ability to give evidence clearly and accurately.

“This can prevent important information being made available to the court to protect children from violence and means dangerous decisions are being made.”

Ms Batty continued:

“Ending the cross-examination by violent ex-partners is a practical, fast step that the federal government can take immediately to empower victims to give evidence without fear.  There is no reason why we can’t extend protection to victims in the family law system as an urgent priority.

“By empowering victims to give evidence without fear, courts will be able to better detect risks of violence and keep our kids safe in family law matters.”