Chapter 3 highlighted the profound impact that family and relationship breakdown has on the immediate and extended members of a family. For some, this stress is exacerbated by their interactions with the family law system, and many families and individuals are consequently required to seek professional support for assistance.
The Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) Report, Family Law for the Future—An Inquiry into the Family Law System (ALRC 2019 Report), commented that many aspects of the Family Law Act 1975 (Family Law Act) demonstrate a consideration for 'informality, privacy, and respect for the dignity of separating couples' and:
… illustrate Parliament’s intention to identify and treat family law as being different in character from other areas of civil law because of the emotional and financial consequences of relationship breakdown, and its public policy impacts on the wider society.
This idea is most prevalent in section 43 of the Family Law Act, which provides that each jurisdiction have regard to:
the need to preserve and protect the institution of marriage as the union of 2 people to the exclusion of all others voluntarily entered into for life;
the need to give the widest possible protection and assistance to the family as the natural and fundamental group unit of society, particularly while it is responsible for the care and education of dependent children;
the need to protect the rights of children and to promote their welfare;
the need to ensure protection from family violence; and
the means available for assisting parties to a marriage to consider reconciliation or the improvement of their relationship to each other and to their children.
The scope, effectiveness and accessibility of support services were consistent themes raised by many submitters and witnesses throughout this inquiry. This
chapter provides an overview of the support services available to families and individuals engaging with Australia’s family law system and considers:
the scope of support services that are available to men, women, children and other groups which are require specialised support;
the Family Advocacy and Support Services (FASS); and
services that are funded by the Australian Government.
This chapter builds on the discussion of services in Chapter 2; Chapter 5; Chapter 8 and Chapter 12.
Scope and availability of support services
A sentiment expressed in many submissions was that support services needed to be expanded to be more accommodating to families and individuals irrespective of their background or personal circumstances.
For example, one witness highlighted:
… everyone is equal and everyone has a right to access the same services regardless of any demographic that exists for that individual [which] provides a much better access to social services [and] a better solution within the community.
This section examines the range of services providing dedicated support for men, women and children, as well as more specialised support services tailored to meet the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and individuals belonging to groups that are typically underrepresented in the family law system.
Support for men
The committee heard from a range of organisations that provide specialised support services for men—such as Australian Brotherhood of Fathers; Lone Fathers Association of Australia; Men's Resources Tasmania; Men's Rights Agency; No to Violence and the One in Three Campaign.
The evidence received by the committee demonstrated two key issues with the provision of support services for men: firstly, the limited range of services available; and secondly, the perceived misrepresentation of males being perpetrators of violence, rather than genuine victims.
For example, Mr Andrew Humphreys, Social Worker at the One in Three Campaign highlighted the perceived inequality of services dedicated to supporting men and women:
… we actually need to set up the supports that already exist for women for men as well—for example, when men have to go forward with these issues, they have a counsellor assisting them, and they may have access to a men's legal service, as there is for women to a woman's legal service. There needs to be a men's legal service with these sorts of allegations so that, when a man does gets to the stage of needing an AVO or going to the Family Court, he is being supported, in the same way that many women can access these supports.
Another sentiment raised by a number of submitters and witnesses was the perception that men presenting as victims of family violence are more likely to be treated as perpetrators of violence than women presenting as victims of family violence. For example, Mrs Sue Price, Administrator, Men's Rights Agency commented:
I would like to see services that are genuine in listening to men and actually believing men that they have a genuine complaint. That's what we're lacking. We have men who complain that, when they've been a victim of domestic violence, and quite serious violence, they're sent off to a men's anger management course … because there is nowhere else to send them.
The One in Three Campaign explained that men can feel discouraged from presenting to support services or reporting that they are a victim of family violence and abuse and submitted that:
Many barriers to male victims disclosing their abuse are created or amplified by the lack of public acknowledgement that males can also be victims of family violence, the lack of appropriate services for male victims and their children, and the lack of appropriate help available for male victims from existing services. Such barriers include not knowing where to seek help, not knowing how to seek help, feeling there is nowhere to escape to, feeling they won’t be believed or understood, feeling that their experiences would be minimised or they would be blamed for the violence and/or abuse, feeling that services would be unable to offer them appropriate help, fear that they would be falsely arrested because of their gender (and their children left unprotected from the perpetrator).
For this reason, Mr Jonathan Bedloe, Executive Officer at Men's Resources Tasmania told the committee that men sometimes regretted seeking support:
I think a lot of the time men who have shared their stories or are willing to share their stories find themselves being judged … A lot of men who have told their stories in counselling sessions or other forums have regretted doing that because of the reception they've received … There's quite a bit of commentary in the men's sector that men who call as victims at the start end up being categorised as perpetrators. … I think there's a real problem when, after somebody rings up expressing concern about their experience as a victim, the conversation leads to exploring their perpetration of violence. Even though they may have, if they're not validating their experience then we risk alienating them and potentially becoming part of the ongoing forms of violence against them. That's one area where I think we need to value and validate the stories we hear from men.
Despite these concerns, No to Violence, which operate a telephone line for men wishing to seek assistance for family violence, told the committee that they are seeing more men contacting their service 'of their own volition':
… indicating … some of the complexity that goes on in those men's lives but also a hopeful sign that, if we do provide services that are relevant, people will reach out and that maybe … men are starting to take a bit more responsibility for their own part in whatever is going on in their families. It may also be because we've offered webchat facilities, so people don't always have to pick up the phone and talk with another human being; there's a way of them accessing our service that's a little bit more anonymous and a little bit more shielded for them … [W]e believe the earlier we can get in on engagement of a man's own understanding of what's happening for him the better chance we have of keeping everybody safer.
No to Violence also explained their experience as a service provider providing support to men about their use of violence:
Our experience is also that, when men first call us, they often present as victims. Even if they're not the genuine victims of physical or psychological violence, they feel victims. They believe that they're victims of the system. They believe that it's all gone her way. They believe that it's all stacked against them and the courts are wrong, and: 'I told the police I didn't actually punch her. I just punched the wall beside her.' … We think: 'Okay, so you just punched the wall. I wonder how that was for her.' 'Oh, the kids didn't see it or hear it.' 'Well, how do you know?' 'Because they were upstairs. Because I never hit her when the kids were around.' That's a flag for us. That tells us that he's made a conscious decision to use violence. He's doing it when the kids aren't around because he thinks that they're not going to be harmed. The truth is children are harmed by this. They're harmed by living in families that have extreme tension and where things are going to kick off at any point in time. So we work hard with men to try and engage with them and empathise with where they're at but to also help them reframe it so that they can find a responsible place to be in that space. And that includes this use of legal processes and legal systems. The men need services too … because there is so much at stake here for families if we don't build stronger services for the men.
Support for women
The committee also heard from a range of services specialising in providing support for women, including a number of family violence services and several women's legal services.
A submitter told the committee about her experience seeking support following her involvement with the family law system:
This situation has had a profound effect on my health and on my family members and my current partner. As a consequence of the court experience, I have developed an anxiety disorder which I had not had before. I am still experiencing the consequences of this disorder 8 years later.
Over the past years we have gone from service to service, seeing various doctors, health care professionals, relationship Australia services, women’s refuges, every local service, councillors and psychologists. Our local service, Child and Youth mental health services reviewed our situation and concluded that my son is highly distressed and referred us onto another psychological service that we do not have his father’s consent for. Consequently, it meant another dead end ...
A common concern expressed in the evidence received by the committee was the perceived lack of support services available to women affected by family violence participating in the family law system. For example, the National Council of Single Mothers and their Children recommended that these women have access to affordable legal representation to mitigate against safety risks that may present themselves when victims are required to represent themselves during court proceedings. YWCA Canberra made a similar point and advocated for a Women Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service to be rolled out across local and district courts.
In its submission, Women's Legal Service Victoria demonstrated how its services assist women involved in the family law system:
Tara's partner Gareth was physically and emotionally abusive towards her and their three children throughout their relationship. He was financially controlling of Tara and secretive about his income and their finances. Tara did not have her own bank account or independent access to joint funds. Within months of their relationship ending Tara became aware that Gareth withdrew around $63,000 of savings from his account.
Represented by [Women's Legal Service Victoria], Tara sought and obtained an injunction to prevent Gareth from making further withdrawals. She also obtained procedural court orders for Gareth to make full and frank financial disclosure and account for the money he withdrew.
For eight months Gareth, who had legal representation, failed to provide the financial documentation ordered. No negotiations or agreement could occur at the court ordered conciliation conference because Gareth’s financial situation was not known. There was no legal aid available for her property matter and she could not meet the cost of a barrister to argue for her full entitlement in a final hearing.
To ensure she received some financial settlement, Tara was made an urgent application for property orders for her to receive 100% of the balance of Gareth’s known savings. Tara, who had care of their three children, received the meagre balance of the account which was known to her, being around $28,000.
Moreover, the Australian Muslim Women's Centre for Human Rights highlighted that support services that are equipped to identify women and children affected by violence would assist in mitigating instances where:
… women are subjected to coercive controlling violence feel pressure to agree to parenting arrangements and consent orders that are not in the best interest of their children and do not take the experiences of family violence into account.
For some women, these challenges are further impaired by physical and geographical isolation. For example, Mrs Janet Taylor, Managing Principal Solicitor at Central Australian Women's Legal Service summarised the vast scope of barriers to resourcing and funding for services supporting women affected by violence in the Northern Territory:
Resources are a gendered issue … We say that every legal service, from Legal Aid to Aboriginal Legal Aid, needs to be funded. But I think that women's legal services such as ours, which are specialised, and the Aboriginal-controlled organisations that deal with women victims are not funded on the same level as Legal Aid or those that tend to focus more on men. I would say the majority of victims in the Territory go through all of our organisations, but we're not as resourced because it's really set up and geared for criminal proceedings funding and still maintains that form. Obviously it's evidenced based, I'm not making any value judgement [sic] here, but most offenders still tend to be male, so that's where the money goes.
Support for children
A few submissions highlighted inadequate range of support services for children with separated parents participating in the family law system.
For example, Carinity Talera highlighted the need for specialised support services to assist children throughout family law proceedings, including through family violence counselling, to ensure that they 'feel physically and emotionally safe prior to exploring trauma and mourning losses'.
A submitter recounted the impact that the family law process had on his children:
During proceedings, my children subjected to abuse by the mother and evidenced by supervised contact services when attempts to build a relationship. The children had been in serious distress, screaming and crying prior to staff brining [sic] the children out to meet with me. This continued for the entire 8 months, each time for over an hour, staff failed to intervene or make official note to the court.
To improve the scope of support services for children, the Benevolent Society recommended that children's advocates be located at family courts and that court officials be provided with the relevant resources and training so that they can appropriately engage with children throughout the court process.
Services tailored to meet the needs of specific groups
Many submitters and witnesses also expressed concerns about the lack of appropriate and accessible services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; as well as clients of the family law system from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds; living with a disability; identifying as LGBTQI+; and from regional, rural and remote areas. These views are presented below.
Support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples
The committee heard from a number of organisations which provide specialised support services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples involved in the family law system—such as Aboriginal Family Law Services; Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia; the North Australian Aboriginal Legal Service; and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service.
Two broad concerns were identified in the evidence received by the committee, which included—a lack of culturally appropriate service models for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities; and a deficiency in the availability of adequately resourced services.
For example, Dr April O'Mara, Manager, Practice Governance and Research at Centacare Family and Relationship Services told the committee that to assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families facing challenges such as 'racism, discrimination and … intergenerational trauma' engage with the family law system:
We believe support for self-determination, responsibility, ownership and cultural pride in family law matters for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families is important, and a system much like the Murri Court system model may assist to manage these complex families and their complex needs.
Relationships Australia Northern Territory made a similar point, and explained that generic Family Relationship Centre (FRC) models were not equipped to provide the necessary support for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as:
… many people from remote communities do not neatly fit into the usual demographic that makes up the majority of the clientele of [FRCs] where a couple is separating and wants to make parenting arrangements for their children. This is more of a rarity in remote indigenous communities where families and entire communities can be in dispute and may be affected by a range of safety issues, yet resolutions to their family disputes often don’t involve separating or actually leaving a community.
In its submission, Women's Legal Centre ACT recommended greater resourcing for legal services to provide non-legal, culturally appropriate support services and included a case study illustrating the benefits of holistic support:
Linda* is an Aboriginal woman who contacted [Women's Legal Centre ACT] … Linda’s ex-partner had made an application to the court to see the children … She could not afford a private lawyer. The Centre’s specialist Family Law Solicitor spoke with Linda to understand her views of what was best for her and the children …
Linda, the Solicitor and Centre’s social worker discussed the concept of supervised time and agreed to seek an adjournment of her case to go to mediation to explore this possibility without having to take the matter to court … The mediation resulted in a very slow introduction of supervised time … The Centre also stayed in touch with the matter to ensure the support she received was culturally informed. Linda also went to an Aboriginal medical service to access culturally appropriate counselling support. The Centre’s multidisciplinary team worked together in way that was led by Linda and mindful of her cultural needs and the effects of trauma in her life and relationships. The Centre worked to support Linda to understand her rights and obligations and her desire to focus on supporting her children and staying safe and keeping the matter out of court.
To improve the relationship between officials of the family court and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, Aboriginal Legal Service of Western Australia recommended that a service similar to FASS be established 'so that Aboriginal social or support workers, preferably from or very familiar with the local area, are collated with family lawyers and can work directly with clients'. Similarly, Domestic Violence NSW recommended that 'Aboriginal Liaison Officers' be made available at family court facilities and FRCs.
Support for people from CALD backgrounds
A few submissions identified two key barriers faced by people with CALD backgrounds when accessing the family law system and relevant support services: a lack of cultural awareness by court officials and support staff; and insufficient availability of interpreters. These points are discussed below.
In its submission, the Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia (FECCA) recommended that training be facilitated for judicial officers to improve their cultural awareness and literacy to assist clients of the family law system belonging to CALD backgrounds to improve their understanding of court procedures and their legal rights. InTouch Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence (InTouch) raised a similar point and called for more funding to enable specialised support workers to provide referrals and emotional support to 'migrant and refugee women' at court facilities.
The FECCA recognised that qualified interpreters and translation staff play an essential role in ensuring accessibility across all aspects of the family law system. This sentiment was echoed by Ms Amber Russell, Solicitor at Central Australian Women's Legal Service, who stated that:
… the availability of interpreters can mean the difference between a client being actively involved, engaged and included in the legal process or not. If they're not giving evidence and interpreters aren't available, they can sit in the matter and they can see their lawyer is there doing a lot of talking, or the judge is doing a lot of talking, but they don't actually have a full understanding of what's happening.
InTouch recommended that interpreters undertake training to ensure that they are proficient in legal terminology and equipped to recognise individuals experiencing family violence.
Support for people living with a disability
A few submissions recognised the challenges that people living with a disability face when trying to access various aspects of the family law system and the relevant support.
The Australia Women Against Violence Alliance illustrated how a client with a disability involved in the family law system can be disadvantaged due to a lack of awareness and understanding:
During the meeting with the family report writer Ameera could not raise family violence, as she did not have enough evidence to support her claim. In addition, Ameera faced barriers communicating her story because of her developmental disability. This meant that some crucial pieces of information were missed. Neither the family report writer nor the whole system were equipped and trained to adequately respond to Ameera’s needs. Unfortunately, even Ameera’s lawyer blamed her for not being able 'communicate properly'. 'It’s like you completely disappear [within the system]', Ameera told us.
Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) submitted that women living with a disability were more likely to experience domestic violence, compared to women who do not live with a disability, and recommended:
Structural changes like improvements to accessibility, for example wheelchair access, and alternatives to verbally calling matters to assist deaf or hard-of-hearing service users to know when their case is being called, need to accompany changes to the attitudes and stereotypes that impede safe access for women with disability experiencing DFV. Regular disability awareness training would be a great start for all people working within the family law response system.
Support for people from regional, rural and remote areas
Several submissions discussed the barriers faced by families living in regional rural and remote areas trying to access support services.
For example, Mrs Taylor explained the challenges facing the delivery and accessibility of services across the Northern Territory:
Our limited services delivery also includes [FRCs], contact centres for changeover, counselling, safe houses for women affected by family violence, police stations—some communities don't have a police station—interpreters where English is not the main language in a community and transport to the nearest town. If I can put this into context, a lot of our clients have to travel several hundred kilometres to come to see us in the office if they cannot contact us by phone or by social media.
Relationships Australia also recognised:
… that there are fewer resources available to people in these areas, and that they live with pressures, complexities and uncertainties not experienced by those living in cities and regional centres.
Given this, Relationships Australia recommended that services be co-located wherever possible to '[e]hance accessibility' for families living outside 'major population centres'.
Support for people identifying as LGBTQI
Better Place Australia and Rainbow Families Victoria commented on the experiences of LGBTQI individuals and 'rainbow families' engaging with the family law system:
Rainbow families are largely ignored by the family law system. While there have been improvements in the recognition of rainbow families within the family law system, family law support services are not appropriately funded for the specific work of supporting rainbow families during separation.
Better Place Australia also highlighted the need for 'specialist LGBTQI+ specific family law services' to appropriately assist LGBTQI families engaging with the family law system and participating in family dispute resolution. Moreover, Rainbow Families Victoria recommended that 'LGBTIQ and gender diverse culturally responsive' written material be produced to improve inclusivity for rainbow families as clients of the family law system.
Family Advocacy and Support Services
The committee received a substantial amount of evidence about the effectiveness of FASS and how it assists various aspects of the family law system. For this reason, this section considers the views presented by submitters and witnesses to the inquiry.
The Attorney-General's Department (AGD) informed the committee that FASS is a means to reduce the delays and costs for clients of the family law system:
The FASS is an integrated duty lawyer and social support service available at court for families affected by family violence with family law matters. This is a holistic service that helps clients achieve positive legal and social outcomes, by helping them to connect with social supports they would otherwise not have accessed.
[$41.1 million provided over six years to fund and evaluate the FASS from 1 July 2016 to 30 June 2022.]
An addition [sic] $7.84 million over three years has been provided to engage dedicated men’s support workers in all FASS registry and circuit locations from October 2019.
Evidence received by the committee about FASS was generally positive. For example, the Sexual Assault Support Service said that FASS 'appears to be well-received and supported' and should be expanded. Furthermore, they observed:
An Evaluation of the Family Advocacy and Support Services – Final Report (FASS Evaluation) was released in October 2018, with decisions about future service delivery to be informed by the evaluation. The FASS Evaluation found it to be 'an effective and important program which fills a gap in both legal and social service provision to family law clients with family violence matters. It found that the FASS has increased awareness of family violence, increased feelings of support and levels of help-seeking by clients, and contributed to positive legal and social outcomes for clients.
Given this, a number of submissions supported the expansion of FASS across courts throughout all states and territories, including in rural and regional locations, and noted the need for more funding and resourcing.
For example, the Family Court of Western Australia told the committee that that Legal Aid Commissions (LACs) deliver FASS 'during circuits by the family law magistrates in regional areas including Geraldton, Kalgoorlie, Broome, Albany and Bunbury'. Notwithstanding this, the Hume Riverina Community Legal Service (HRCLS) identified that this scheme could be better resourced in rural and regional areas:
… it is noted that this service does not extend to regional courts such as Albury. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult for self-represented parties to obtain duty assistance at Court, with the NSW Legal Aid family law position currently being vacant, and HRCLS often being involved in matters, or having a reduced capacity to assist. There are no other local services in Albury that can provide assistance on a duty basis.
Whilst noting that the FASS does not provide ongoing representation, Women's Legal Service NSW noted that it does fill an important gap:
We acknowledge the benefit in clients receiving the assistance of a duty solicitor at court, for example, to provide legal advice, drafting of a recovery order application and undertaking first mention appearance as well as providing access to family violence and other support services.
Many submissions recommended that FASS be expanded to provide ongoing case management support to vulnerable clients of the family law system. For example, Caxton Legal Centre submitted that:
Expanding the FASS model to provide case management would, for clients predominantly focused on their legal issues at court, increase opportunities for engagement and supports that are relevant to the next court appearance.
CASA Forum—Victorian Centres Against Sexual Assault recommended that FASS be expanded to 'include specialise sexual assault services to assist in identification of risk and ensure the safety, protection and wellbeing of child and young people and their carers'.
The committee also received a substantial amount of evidence about the introduction of men's support workers at all FASS locations to assist 'both alleged perpetrators and male victims of family violence involved in family law proceedings' by improving men's engagement with the court system, reducing court time and enhancing victim safety. This initiative is funded as part of the Fourth Action Plan of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010–2022, with the 2019–20 Budget committing $7.84 million over three years.
In its submission, No to Violence used the following case study to illustrate the effectiveness of FASS:
Steve approached the information desk on the morning of his court hearing in a heightened and aggressive state. Noticing this, the specialist men’s FASS worker approached Steve and offered to speak with him to understand his needs. In approaching Steve this way, the specialist men’s FASS worker was able to effectively open up a dialogue, explore his concerns and issues, and work with him to reduce his agitation.
By the time Steve presented to the duty lawyer he was frustrated, however no longer aggressive or agitated. The duty lawyer was able to speak with Steve clearly, and while sometimes he sidetracked into providing tangential information that minimised his use of family violence, he was able to be effectively re-directed back to the case and his legal problem on each occasion.
The specialist men’s FASS worker sat with Steve throughout court proceedings, ensuring he understood the process and felt supported and heard. Following his experience, Steve reported his faith in the legal system had been 'somewhat restored'.
No to Violence concluded that Steve's men's FASS worker and duty lawyer were able to effectively and safely provide Steve with the assistance he needed to be supported 'into a frame of mind where he was receptive to legal advice and willing to engage'.
The committee heard from two FASS men's support workers at its public hearing in Canberra on 24 June 2020: Mr Shane Bedwell (Melbourne Registry) and Ms Carolyn Macleod (Dandenong Registry). Mr Bedwell and Ms Macleod explained the challenges involved with men engaging with FASS.
For example, Mr Bedwell, who engages with approximately 40–50 men each month at the Melbourne Registry, recounted:
What I see with men is they don't want to engage with the service. There's too much shame or they say, 'I don't need help.' I have to round up these men to engage with the service. Once I'm in those conversations with them, they're quite happy to talk to me and I can give referrals. I find the difficulty in the court … is that men engaging with our service find it very difficult, for some reason.
Ms Macleod shared a similar experience:
… I have to go up and approach men and have a chat to encourage them to engage with the service. They're not forced; it's voluntary. It takes a bit of work just to help them see that we're there to help them and support them.
Services funded by the Australian Government
In addition to FASS, the committee notes a number of additional services funded by the Australian Government, which are designed to assist vulnerable families and clients of the family law system. This section provides a brief overview of these services and considers observations regarding their effectiveness expressed by submitters and witnesses to the inquiry.
Commonwealth-funded family law services administered by AGD include:
Family Dispute Resolution (FDR) Services and Regional FDR Services;
Children's Contact Services (CCS);
Parenting Orders/Post Separation Cooperative Parenting Program; and
the Supporting Children after Separation Program.
In 2018–19, these services supported approximately 170 000 clients in through 500 000 sessions. AGD noted that in the same period:
62% of clients reported a positive improvement in their circumstances after using the services
70% of clients agreed that the services had a positive impact on helping them to achieve their goals
90% of clients were satisfied with the services provided to them.
AGD explained the requirements for organisations who apply to receive funding from the Government to deliver family law services:
Services conduct an intake, screening and assessment process to ensure the needs of the family are well understood and that any safety issues are identified and able to be managed. Services must have collaborative arrangements with other organisations to ensure families are linked to other services that may assist them with their other needs (for example, drug and alcohol issues, problem gambling, or legal issues). These processes are required by the Grant Opportunity Guidelines that apply to each service type.
Family Relationship Centres
FRCs provide 'information, advice and dispute resolution services' to assist separating families to agree on 'parenting arrangements without going to court'.
A few submissions commented on the waiting periods that exist for clients trying to access FRCs. In his submission, Professor Patrick Parkinson advocated for more funding to be invested in these centres to improve their capacity to meet the high level of demand for their services. Professor Parkinson also recognised the capacity for FRCs to assist families through prevention and early intervention, but noted that this was limited by long wait times to obtain an appointment.
Dispute Management Australia was critical of FRCs' 'overly time consuming and cumbersome' administrative processes. To improve efficiency, Dispute Management Australia recommended that funding for Family Relationship Centres focus on adequately resourcing accredited FDR practitioners and mediation services.
Family Law Counselling
Family Law Counselling assists 'couples and families to manage relationship issues arising out of relationship changes, separation and divorce, through counselling, therapeutic intervention, support, information and referral'.
For example, in its submission, CatholicCare Victoria and Tasmania included a case study illustrating how a mother and son used Family Law Counselling to 'repair' their relationship after going through the family law courts:
The son had Year 10 exams which were imminent and he wanted to be living back at his principal place of residence to study for these. Sessions were held with the young man. Once engaged and his feelings were explored, the mother was engaged for a joint session. This resulted in the mother being encouraged to hear her son’s perspective: In particular his experience about being young person increasingly wanting to be self-determining, his right to 'have a voice' and to continue his relationships with both parents unimpeded by conflictual communication that he identified as not having impacted him. The mother was able to sit with this and acknowledge his experience. As a result, a return to her home was negotiated so that the son could be settled in time to study for his
Family Dispute Resolution Services
FDR services facilitate specialist mediation 'conducted by independent, accredited practitioners' to assist families to 'resolve family law matters without going to court'. The Government also funds Regional FDR Services, which are 'designed to meet the particular needs of regional communities'.
Relationships Australia, which manage one-third of Australia's FRCs, explained that:
Until recently, funding was available for FDR clients at Family Relationship Centres to have one hour of free legal advice, which was an effective way of delivering much-needed services in a way which was accessible and affordable, and which could enable families to avoid lengthy proceedings over what is often a modest property pool (or debts). Unfortunately, this funding has been withdrawn and clients are struggling as a consequence.
To assist FDR clients who are unable to access FDR services due to their financial circumstances, Peninsula Community Legal Centre recommended that the Government needs to provide funding to clients who are not eligible for legal aid, but remain 'vulnerable and disadvantaged'.
FDR is discussed in more detail Chapter 12 (Alternative dispute resolution).
Children's Contact Services
CCSs 'assist children of separated parents to establish and maintain a relationship with their other parents and family members through supervised visits or changeover services'.
While Government-funded CCSs must adhere to the Families and Children Activity Administrative Approval Requirements, which do not apply to privately operated services, there is no accreditation system in place for providers of CCSs. As discussed in Chapter 8, a large number of submissions recommended that providers of these services should be subject to more formal accreditation and training regulations to ensure that practitioners are equipped with the necessary skills to support parents interact with their children in a safe, supervised environment.
In their submission, Dr Jane Wangmann, Ms Miranda Kaye and Associate Professor Tracey Booth told the committee that there was a 'lack of federally funded supervised contact services' and commented that 'waiting lists … prevent safe contact taking place [and deprive] children of relationships with a parent post-separation where supervision is appropriate'. Relationships Australia explained that these delays can mean that a child's access to their parent is irregular 'before the court orders large chunks of unsupervised contact'.
Mallee Family Care, a CCS provider, explained how the lack of funding complicates their ability to provide the service, despite demand:
Due to funding constraints the service currently operates on Wednesday, Fridays, Saturday and Sundays at hours convenient to families. There is presently no vacancy for supervised visitation at the [Children's Contact Services] and will not be for the foreseeable future. Referrals are either court ordered or self-referred and vacancies arise as a result of either the Court moving families through after the parents have worked with our services to build their capacity and improve their parenting and self-manage visitation or after self-referred families feel they have reached this point. With consideration to our current Court Ordered caseload, it is unlikely that this will occur before the following sitting in June 2020.
CCSs were discussed in more detail in Chapter 8.
Parenting Orders/Post Separation Cooperative Parenting Programs
As mentioned in Chapter 8, parents experiencing a great deal of conflict can receive 'ongoing, intensive support' through Government-funded Parenting Orders/Post-Separation Cooperative Parenting Programs.
These programs assist separating families to manage their parenting arrangement through 'child focused and child-inclusive interventions with the support of a case worker'. Relationships Australia told the committee that this can be 'beneficial for young children and recently-separated families, where periods of time away from parents/caregivers can have significant developmental impacts on children'.
These programs also aim to provide 'education and support to parents where conflict is affecting their relationship with their children' as:
Parents whose children are the subject of parenting orders made by a court, in contrast to those who agree on parenting arrangements outside of court, are more likely to be involved in further court proceedings down the track.
Stakeholders observe that there is a tendency for inter-parental conflict to escalate and solidify during family court proceedings, and this leaves parents ill-equipped to manage co-parenting arrangements after proceedings come to an end. Ongoing parental conflict is also a key factor contributing to non-compliance with court orders and returns to court. Applications for court enforcement of parenting orders are more likely to be part of an ongoing conflict involving multiple court proceedings, rather than one-off matters.
Mallee Family Care was of the view that Post Separation Cooperative Parenting Programs were 'underutilised' and advocated for referrals to these programs to be encouraged by professionals engaged in the family law system:
By way of example, if a judge can see a pattern of breaches occurring and there is high conflict and communication issues between the parties they could refer to [Post Separation Cooperative Parenting Program] to assist the parties in working through the issues.
Supporting Children after Separation Program
The Supporting Children after Separation Program assists children 'to deal with issues arising from the breakdown of their parents' relationship, and allows children to participate in decisions that affect them'.
Submissions to the inquiry did not provide commentary on the effectiveness of the Supporting Children after Separation Program.
Other Government-funded support services for vulnerable families
Support services funded by the Department of Social Services complement the family law services funded by AGD. For example, Family and Relationship Services 'aim to strengthen family relationships, prevent breakdown and ensure the wellbeing and safety of children' by providing 'broad‑based counselling and education to families of different forms and sizes', and Specialised Family Violence Services support families affected by domestic and family violence.
The Government also provides 'ongoing funding for 17 community legal service providers to deliver specialist domestic violence units and health justice partnerships in 21 locations' across Australia. Domestic violence units offer access to 'financial counselling, tenancy assistance, trauma counselling, emergency accommodation, and employment services'. Health justice partnerships facilitate legal access in a safe location for vulnerable individuals with the assistance of lawyers and health professionals.
The committee notes the Family Violence and Cross-examination of Parties Scheme, which is funded by the Government's Women's Economic Security Package and administered by LACs in courts across Australia. The Family Law Amendment (Family Violence and Cross-examination of Parties) Act 2018 banned direct cross-examinations in some circumstances occurring from 10 September 2019 to improve protection for victims of family violence. Previously, personal cross-examinations during family law proceedings exposed victims of family violence to further abuse and trauma perpetrated by their former partner. Since 10 September 2019, in cases where there is an allegation of family violence, cross-examinations are conducted by a legal representative on the client's behalf.
The Government has also committed to investing $75 million from
2020–21 to 2022–23 to assist Family Violence Prevention Legal Services 'for frontline family violence and support services that directly improve safety for women and children, and provide better access to legal support'.