Federal Parliament - Australia's Family Law System Joint Select Committee - Report [16 March 2021]

March 16, 2021

Dr ALYI'm really pleased to have the opportunity to speak about the second interim report from the Joint Select Committee on Australia's Family Law System. I was a member of that committee and the member for Warringah was also a member of that committee. As the member for Warringah said, it was a very long and oftentimes emotional inquiry. We heard a lot of conflicting evidence from people who have been through the system. I think one of the great values of the inquiry was that it gave people who have been through the system an opportunity to put in a submission or to give evidence at a hearing. I and the member for Warringah have both been through the system. We know what the deficiencies are and we know the impact that a bad experience in going through the system can have not just on yourself but on your children as well.

I'd like to start, first of all, by thanking the chair, who had an incredible job of bringing together some fairly disparate views of not just the people who were providing submissions but also the members of the committee. The chair, the member for Menzies, Mr Andrews, did an incredible job of bringing together those disparate views into a very coherent report. I'd also like to thank the committee secretariat, who worked incredibly hard on this and did an incredibly good job of bringing everyone together, and of course the other members and senators on the committee, who were representing the various sides of politics here.

The committee received over 1,700 submissions from organisations and individuals. I remember having to sit in a room and go through about 1,200 of them at one time. It was quite a daunting task. We had 12 public hearings and 13 in camera hearings—over 40 hours of evidence—and 85 witness were heard in in camera sessions. It was a very extensive review, but, as the member for Warringah said, this was a review that followed many reviews. It's an inquiry that followed many inquiries. In fact, it is the 68th report and inquiry on family law conducted by various parliaments over the years.

From the outset, Labor members stated that, quite frankly, we did not consider there was a need for another review and another inquiry. We know what the problems are. We've been told what the problems are. Nearly 100 recommendations have been made over the years on how to fix, and what to do for, the family law system. None of those have been acted on. But, even though Labor members argued from the outset that we did not need or want another review and another inquiry, we undertook our roles seriously and participated in the inquiry diligently.

As I said, the inquiry was quite emotional at times, particularly for somebody who's been through the system, who has lived experience of the system and who has lived experience of domestic violence. There were times when it was quite emotional. It also opened up a discussion, and my office has since been contacted by many people who did not put in a submission but who wanted to come and talk to me personally about their own personal experiences as well. We've been quite inundated with calls. One of the good things to come out of that has been being able to help some people navigate the system, after they contacted my office either after appearing at a hearing or putting in a submission, and that's been a rewarding experience and a rewarding part of being a member of this committee.

But the thing that really came out and stood out during the inquiry was the adversarial nature of our system. By the time families get to the point where they are relying on the court system there has already been a considerable breakdown between the parties. They may have already sought some form of counselling or mediation that has failed. They end up in the courts. They end up fighting it out in the courts. I don't think there is anyone who has been in that position who will tell you that it was a completely positive experience for them. The adversarial nature of our family law system creates further stress and further pressure and makes the daunting and devastating situation of a family breakdown even more daunting and devastating—and it has an even more devastating impact on children in particular.

Resourcing was another issue, including the resourcing of judges, as the member for Warringah said—and I'm glad to see that some of the recommendations look at the appointment of additional judges and registrars. But that lack of resourcing and the backlog of cases and the delays that it creates only add to the adversarial nature, only adds to the devastation and the negative experience of going through the family law system. That was certainly something that struck me in a number of submissions that we had.

The other thing is the misunderstanding around the equal shared responsibility. The misunderstanding that equal shared responsibility equates to equal time with the children as opposed to what it is, which is equal say in the management of the children's affairs, also adds to, again, the adversarial nature. It can also add to the backlogs, and, in situations where there is domestic violence, it can also add to the retraumatising of the victim.

Finally, one of the other things that stood out to me was the cost of family law practitioners. Some of the costs are really astronomically high. If I look to my very first divorce—it's funny that I can say my first divorce, second divorce!—I think the total asset pool at the end of it all was $26,000 and the lawyer got $10,000. For a single mother raising two children on a minimum wage, that was a lot of money—$10,000 for a lawyer. That was primarily because it became so adversarial that I had to go to the courts several times, and those fees just piled up and piled up. That happened to me some 30 years ago now, and we're hearing stories like that now. It just brings back the point that, after 67 different inquiries, 67 different reports, close to 100 recommendations, I'm hearing today, 30 years later, the same kinds of issues, the same experiences.

In closing, I want to say the committee is quite an unusual committee in that it is allowed to go on for the term of this parliament, so we have made recommendations to look into further aspects. I believe that our child support system needs to be looked at very carefully and very closely, and I welcome further work of the committee looking at the child support issue.

I urge the government to no longer kick the can down the road on this issue of reforming the family law system. The government needs to address those issues. If I went through this 30 years ago and people are going through it now, that really, really says something. If I am talking to women and men who have identical experiences to what I had 30 years ago, how much longer are we going to make people wait? How many more families, how many more individuals are going to be devastated by this system? We need to act. The time for inquiries is over. Let's get this job done and let's get it done now.