Senate inquiry into Parent Management Hearings

Women’s Legal Services Australia (WLSA) has made a submission to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee in response to the Family Law Amendment (Parenting Management Hearings) Bill 2017.  This Bill was introduced into the Senate on 6 December 2017 and was referred to the Senate Committee for inquiry and report. The Committee released its report on 26 March 2018. You can read the Committee’s report here.

The proposed Parent Management Hearings (PMH) model is a large shift away from any current approach in Australia for resolving family law disputes.  Innovative practice, new ideas and a culture of continuous improvement should be encouraged in any court system.  However, when the outcomes of untried and untested processes can have enormous ramifications on the safety of women and children, such as the introduction of PMH, we advocate any new model should be based on research and evidence and informed at every step by domestic violence experts.  WLSA recommends the PMH model be referred to the Australian Law Reform Commission which is currently undertaking a comprehensive review into the family law system.

Parent Management Hearings (PMH) have been described as “a fast, informal, non-adversarial dispute resolution mechanism” to resolve less complex parenting matters.

The Bill proposes that PMHs will be determined by a multi-disciplinary Panel made up of legal and non-legal experts and is designed for unrepresented parties. The Bill proposes Panel members will have the power to fully displace the parental responsibility of one parent.

We note that matters in which family violence and some forms of child abuse are alleged are not automatically excluded from the PMH forum.  It is our experience that such matters are generally complex.

While noting the PMH model does consider the issue of family violence, WLSA raises a number of concerns, including:

  • The Explanatory Memorandum says there will be a comprehensive risk assessment. The Practice Directions relating to this are yet to be developed and it is not clear if risk assessment will be ongoing.  Given risk in family violence is dynamic, ongoing risk assessment by suitably qualified professionals is important.
  • The Principal Panel member is the only Panel member required to have expertise in matters relating to family violence. However, the Principal Panel member is not required to sit on each panel.
  • All Panel Members and staff conducting risk assessments should be culturally competent with respect to working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, culturally and linguistically diverse families and LGBTIQ+ families as well as disability aware and have ongoing training in cultural competency; disability awareness; family violence, child abuse and trauma informed practice; and working with vulnerable clients.
  • Legal representation will only be allowed by leave of the Panel. While family violence and power imbalances are relevant factors in granting leave, no funding has been allocated for legal representation. This means that those who are granted leave may not practically be able to arrange representation.
  • The Panel has the power to require the production of information and documents. It is not clear what procedures will be required to be followed, for example, regarding objections to providing such information and documents. There is a need for the development of guidelines about the use of sensitive records.

PMHs are proposed as a pilot in two sites – Parramatta and a second site yet to be confirmed.

On 27 September 2017, the former Commonwealth Attorney-General, Senator the Hon George Brandis QC, commissioned the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) to undertake the most comprehensive review of the family law system in Australia that has ever been undertaken.  The ALRC is currently accepting submissions in response to their Issues Paper by 7 May. In our view, it makes sense that the PMH be delayed and its implementation be specifically considered by the ALRC in their review before piloting such an untested model.

Our submission was endorsed by a number of sexual and domestic violence and women’s peak bodies and services.

You can read our submission here.

WLSA appeared before the Committee to give evidence.  You can access  the transcript here.

 

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

Greens adopt our five step Safety First in Family Law plan

In the last week we have seen the Greens announce their domestic violence policy, adopting our five step Safety First in Family Law plan in its entirety.

Our plan is supported by over 90 organisations who have signed our open letter to all major political parties and former Australian of the Year Rosie Batty who is campaigning in support of the plan.

The announcement from the Greens is a huge win for the Safety First in Family Law campaign and it increases pressure on the Prime Minister as well as the Opposition leader to step up and commit to the plan to make women and children safe in the family law system.

Read our media release here.

Will you stand with us?

You can join the campaign by emailing the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition asking them to adopt the five step road map to fix family law. We’ve put together a sample letter and some email tips, you can read them here.

Sign the Never Alone campaign petition.

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