Leading family lawyers have welcomed the 2017 Federal Budget commitment to family law services as a long overdue support mechanism, especially for children and young parents.
The Commonwealth Government this month announced the first comprehensive review of the Family Law Act in 40 years, as well as $80 million in funding for frontline family law services.
Slater and Gordon Family Lawyer Heather McKinnon said the introduction of parental management hearings and extra family consultants could divert many relatively trivial matters away from court.
“Australia used to have a world class family law system, but more recently the courts have been overwhelmed by smaller parenting disputes that divert attention away from more serious cases,” Ms McKinnon said.
“Some of the most common smaller disputes tying up Family Court resources include:
- Which school or preschool the children should attend;
- Scheduling and frequency of telephone or video calls with the children;
- Drop-off and pick-up arrangements, including whether they will attend each other’s houses or meet on common ground somewhere in the middle;
- How many nights the children will spend with each parent and when;
- How school holidays are shared;
- Who should pay for costs of visits, including petrol costs driving between houses.
Ms McKinnon said when the docket is overflowing with smaller matters, the more serious cases can either be excessively delayed or not given sufficient hearing time.
“To put it in context, sometimes a judge will hear a school drop-off dispute next to a case involving allegations of physical violence or drug addiction,” Ms McKinnon said.
“These more serious cases usually involve evidence from a clinical psychologist or child psychiatrist about whether parents are sufficiently rehabilitated to resume parenting responsibilities, or if there’s still a risk of relapse that could endanger the child.
“When there is increased pressure on judges reviewing these serious cases, there is a greater chance that a child could be placed in a dangerous situation, or not removed fast enough.”
Ms McKinnon said the family consultant trial program in Parramatta included in this year’s budget could alleviate this risk by effectively providing ‘triage nurses’ for the Family Court.
“In our experience, most disagreements occur between very young parents with many descending into screaming matches where what’s best for the children is forgotten,” Ms McKinnon said.
“Relationship breakdown is incredibly difficult for children and fighting in court for three years is just going to make things harder, so triaging these smaller issues is going to remove some of the pressure on judges and also be less stressful for children.
“If we get the right trained professionals supporting the Family Court, we would be able to separate high risk offenders from young mums and dads who are maturing and can learn how to become good parents.
“The pilot family consultant program in Parramatta will provide quantitative evidence of what works and what doesn’t, so we can avoid the knee jerk reactions that have caused many of the current problems plaguing Australia’s family law system.”