Leading Australian family lawyer Heather McKinnon has applauded the Turnbull Government’s $100 million family violence funding package, but is calling for urgent action to address weaknesses in the family court system.
Official figures show children fatally abused by a parent account for one in every five domestic homicides in Australia and many experienced family breakdown prior to the death.
Slater and Gordon Family Lawyer Heather McKinnon said the family court has an important role to play in protecting women and children at the centre of family breakdowns, but is struggling due to a lack of resources.
Earlier this year at the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians’ Conference, Ms McKinnon stood alongside Australian of the Year Rosie Batty and made an impassioned plea to state and federal MPs (including Malcolm Turnbull) for this issue to be fast-tracked.
“It is very encouraging to see the Turnbull Government prioritise domestic violence by making it the first policy decision of the new cabinet,” Ms McKinnon said.
“But family court underfunding is creating cracks in the armour we’re giving to women and children through these initiatives and needs to be addressed in Australia’s longer term response to domestic violence.”
Ms McKinnon said the current level of funding usually covers only a fraction of the resources needed.
“In the most serious cases, forensic psychiatrists are appointed to assess the family situation and ensure safety is not at risk,” Ms McKinnon said.
“Their assessments are critical in protecting women and children from future harm, but a lack of funding means in many cases we are only able to afford a quarter of the work that is required.
“Domestic violence victims deserve better treatment in the court system and would also benefit from specialist domestic violence judges.”
Ms McKinnon said women and children in situations involving mental illness and substance abuse are the most at risk.
“We see too often that people suffering from psychosis, schizophrenia or other personality disorders can decompensate rapidly and without warning.
“Without thorough expert evidence, the court has little chance of recognising these situations, putting children at risk of abuse, maltreatment and, in the most extreme circumstances, death.
Ms McKinnon said the problem is getting worse.
“There have been cases I’ve handled where both parents need urgent psychiatric assessments, but legal aid doesn’t have the capacity to increase the grant amount to cover two people,” Ms McKinnon said.
“In situations like this, Independent Children’s Lawyers rely on the goodwill of psychiatrists to do double the work for an already well below-market cost – it’s an unsustainable system."