Inquiry referral and extension
The Joint Select Committee on Australia's Family Law System was appointed by resolution of the Senate on 18 September 2019 and resolution of the House of Representatives on 19 September 2019.
The committee was originally due to present its final report on, or before, 7 October 2020; however, on 31 August 2020, both Houses of Parliament agreed to extend the reporting date to 25 February 2021.
The committee tabled its first interim report on 7 October 2020 and, on 22 and 23 February 2021, the Parliament agreed to extend the presentation of the committee's second interim report until 30 June 2021.
The committee tabled its second interim report on 15 and 16 March 2021, which detailed the committee's views and recommendations on the family law system. At that time, the committee agreed to conduct a short inquiry into the Child Support Scheme (the CSS), and to present a report outlining the committee's views and recommendations on the CSS and its interaction with the family law system.
On 15 and 16 June 2021, the Parliament agreed to extend the committee's inquiry until 29 October 2021 and finally until 16 December 2021. The committee’s intention is to table a final report which deals with any developments and outstanding matters regarding the family law system.
Scope of the third interim report
As noted in the committee's second interim report, that report did not contain any conclusions or recommendations regarding the CSS. At that time, the committee still had a number of outstanding questions regarding the assessment formula, and considered that further information was required before it drew any conclusions. As such, the committee sought and received an extension of the reporting date so that it could conduct a short inquiry in which it could seek expert advice on matters relating to the CSS.
In preparing this third interim report, the committee considered all relevant evidence provided to it across submissions, hearings, and site visits. Further, the committee also reviewed the valuable work undertaken by others through prior inquiries and reviews; these are discussed in further detail later in this chapter.
Structure of the third interim report
This report consists of four chapters, as described below:
Chapter 1 is an introductory chapter which outlines the inquiry's referral; the scope of this report; the conduct of the inquiry; and prior inquiries and reviews.
Chapter 2 sets out key background information on the CSS, such as its legislative framework and key statistics. It also provides an overview of child support assessments, the collection of payments, and remedies for non‑compliance.
Chapter 3 examines the key issues with the CSS which were raised by inquiry participants. These related to general issues, such as accessibility; stakeholder consultation; and data availability, as well as specific problems that participants perceived with the assessment formula.
Chapter 4 contains the committee's views and associated recommendations relating to the CSS.
Scope of the committee's prior reports
The committee has already presented two interim reports to the Australian Parliament. The first interim report, presented in October 2020, was designed to summarise the wide range of views and issues on the family law system which were raised during the committee's public consultations. In that report, the committee did not provide any conclusions or make any recommendations.
The committee's second interim report, presented in March 2021, considered all of the evidence provided to the committee, as well as any current or proposed reforms that were being undertaken within the family law system in response to other inquiries. Complementing the content in the first interim report, the second interim report contained the committee's conclusions and made 29 recommendations on these matters, as well as additional measures that the committee believed were needed to better support Australian families using the family law system. As noted in that report, and highlighted above, it did not contain any conclusions or recommendations on the CSS.
Conduct of the inquiry
The committee originally invited submissions from individuals and organisations by 18 December 2019; however, to allow for additional contributions the committee provided an extension to organisations and individuals allowing lodgements of submissions up to 31 January 2020. Further, due to significant interest in this inquiry, the committee continued to accept submissions beyond this date to ensure that it heard from a wide cross‑section of the community on these important issues. Given this, late submissions were received until 1 February 2021.
Across the entire inquiry, the committee received 1718 submissions. The submissions received by the committee are listed at Appendix 1 and copies of the publicly available submissions are published on the committee's website.
The committee held 13 public hearings and 13 in camera hearings for the inquiry. During the in camera hearings, the committee received approximately 42 hours of evidence from 85 in camera witnesses. A list of the witnesses who appeared at the public hearings can be found at Appendix 2 and copies of the transcripts are available on the committee's website. As noted in the first interim report, as a consequence of the COVID–19 pandemic, hearings that occurred after the hearing of 13 March 2020 were conducted primarily by video and teleconference. The following public hearings were held:
14 February 2020 in Canberra
10 March 2020 in Townsville
11 March 2020 in Rockhampton
12 March 2020 in Brisbane
27 May 2020 (by video/ teleconference)
24 June 2020 (by video/ teleconference)
8 July 2020 (by video/ teleconference)
22 July 2020 (by video/ teleconference)
19 August 2020 (by video/ teleconference)
16 September 2020 (by video/ teleconference)
23 November 2020 (by video/ teleconference)
As noted in the committee's second interim report, the committee visited the Southport Magistrates Specialist Domestic and Family Violence Court on 10 February 2021 and the Family Court of Australia (Brisbane Registry) on 11 February 2021.
On 22 July 2021, the Chief Justice of the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia provided a private briefing to the committee.
On 30 September 2021, the Chief Judge of the Family Court of Western Australia. On both occasions, due to COVID-19 restrictions, these briefings were held remotely, via videoconference.
Prior inquiries and reviews
The first parliamentary inquiry into child support was conducted by the Joint Select Committee on Certain Family Law Issues, which reported in November 1994. The committee inquired into the 'operation and effectiveness' of the CSS and made 163 recommendations regarding the role of the then Child Support Agency, payment issues, enforcement, and the formula for assessing payments.
In December 2003, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs inquired into and reported on child custody arrangements after separation. The report recommended that a Ministerial Taskforce be established to examine the merits of the assessment formula.
In May 2005, the Ministerial Taskforce on Child Support reported to the Parliament and made several recommendations for further reform to recognise the care-relationship between separated parents and their children. The Government accepted many of the report's recommendations, which were implemented between 2006 and 2008. The Law Council of Australia submitted that these reforms primarily focused on changes to aspects of the CSS—such as the meaning of 'shared care', arrangements for paternity disputes and legal protection for parents partaking in self-managed child support agreements.
The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs tabled a report in July 2015 for its inquiry into Australia's child support program (2015 Child Support Report). The report's recommendations emphasised the importance of mediation, the need to improve communication between government agencies and proposed a 'trial of a limited financial guarantee' for child support payments. The report also recommended that the child support program be amended to 'ensure the adequacy of calculated amounts and equity for both payers and payees'.
A complete list of previous inquiries and reviews into Australia's child support system provided at Appendix 3.
Update on the Government's response to the 2015 Child Support Report
A comprehensive list detailing the progress of the Australian Government's response to the recommendations of the 2015 Child Support Report can be found in Appendix 5.
Note on the merger of the Federal Circuit Court of Australia and the Family Court of Australia
On 1 September 2021, the Federal Circuit Court of Australia and the Family Court of Australia merged to become the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia. This merged entity will continue to be referred to as the Family Court of Australia (Family Court) throughout this report.
The committee thanks all of those who contributed to the inquiry. In particular, the committee would like to thank all the individuals who shared their personal experiences of the CSS, and the family law system, with the committee. The committee acknowledges that the sharing of personal stories has been a difficult and emotional experience for many individuals. These stories provided the committee with great insight into the CSS and the family law system, and hence, were central to the committee's work.