Sen Hanson: I congratulate Senator Burston on raising this issue today in matters of public importance. It is very dear to my heart. I hear Senator Macdonald say, ‘It’s a bit late—we’ve actually got the review going’; or Senator Urquhart gets up and says, ‘This is just basically political grandstanding by One Nation and it was going to happen and we don’t want to rush this and slap it together.’ Slapped together? It has been 40 years since the Family Court was introduced. Nothing’s happened. Then Senator Urquhart blames the coalition for not doing anything in the last four years since they’ve been in government in this place. Then I could ask the question: what has the Labor Party done about it? Absolutely nothing!
Australians have been screaming from the rooftops to have something done about the family law courts. It was quite interesting when Senator Abetz mentioned the number of complaints that came across his desk 23 years ago —it was the same thing with me. More than twenty years ago in this place, in 1996, I raised the family law court in my maiden speech. I raised it again in my maiden speech 20 years later in this place. The family law courts are very important to me, and this has had devastating effects on many families across this country.
The reform of the Family Law Act, and the family law court generally, is of primary importance to me, One Nation and my colleagues. In this regard, I have held a number of meetings with the Attorney-General. At the first meeting with the Prime Minister, I raised the Family Law Act, putting forward proposals that might alleviate the cost, the delay and the heartbreak that is symbolic of actions before the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia in its application of the Family Law Act. I have met with the Chief Justice of the Family Court and numerous interest groups, including the Law Council of Australia, who have presented their concerns as well as potential solutions.
It is a complex matter dealing, as it does, with volatile, emotional family issues that often affect the lives of children. Too often one hears of another tragedy, another domestic-violence incident, another lost life or another family torn apart by division. Domestic violence orders are mainly issued in the various state Magistrates Courts and often are used simply as a tool by one parent to stop the other parent having access to their children. Yes, it’s quite disgusting! Parents use their children as pawns and vengeance against the other parent. Often they are abusing our court process. A party can make allegations of abuse to the police, and the police will normally take out a domestic violence order against the accused parent. The domestic violence order is often used as a weapon of vengeance by litigants to the detriment of the other parent as well as their children by denying that parent access. But the police have little choice when confronted with claims of abuse. They have an obligation to protect the vulnerable, as we all appreciate, but often there is a very low standard of proof required before such an order is made. Once made, it is on the record, and that record is given serious consideration by the courts in reaching its determination on parental access orders.
In this review of family law, the issue of domestic violence orders for parties currently before either the Family Court or the Federal Circuit Court must be taken into consideration, as is the case in Western Australia. By doing so, orders are given by judges who are familiar with the litigants and who are better placed to understand the true motive behind such an application. Equally, that judge is always in an informed position throughout the matter. Therefore, it is incumbent on the government to provide the necessary funding for the appointment of further judges as well as for doubling the number of registrars to hear these applications as fast as possible. It is incumbent on this government to ensure that equal access for both parents is not simply a section in the act as a primary premise but is carried out in court decisions.
It is incumbent on this government to end the excessive delays caused by underfunding of the courts. The time delay between the filing and commencement of a trial in the Family Court averages 18 months in most capital cities and an incredible 24 to 36 months in Sydney, Parramatta and Brisbane. The Federal Circuit Court of Australia is worse, and this is a court that was meant to overcome delays in the Family Court.
The entire Family Law Act and its administration must be reviewed with a fresh outlook, without being mired by the past. The urgency of finalising the terms of reference for the Law Reform Commission is paramount. Those terms of reference must be in conjunction and consultation with all parties and interest groups and not at the sole discretion of the Attorney-General.
It is time for politics to be put aside and for every political party to agree to work for a substantive review of family law for the betterment of the Australian society—because the family is the most important element. Not finalising the terms of reference immediately will only prolong these family issues, creating further pressure on government departments and the courts generally. For the Law Reform Commission to successfully undertake this major review, the Attorney-General must make the necessary funds available; otherwise, the review will not happen in the foreseeable future. I will ask the Attorney-General to finalise the terms of reference and to undertake to provide the funding that is necessary for the success of this overdue review.
Let me add in this debate that, apart from the many Australians that I meet when I move around Australia, this is a personal matter for me as a mother and as a grandmother. I’ve been through the court systems, and I’ve had to watch my sons go through the family law courts and how they were treated by their ex-spouses. I’ve seen DVOs put on them that were not warranted. I feel for the men out there that are going through this, because it’s unjustified. They have no recourse, they are missing seeing their children and they are devastated by it to the extent that they suicide. How many men do we know that suicide because of this? They are heartbroken. That is their children’s world. Not only that but we have a legal system that is making, according to the figures that I’ve heard, possibly as much as $40 billion a year out of the family law courts.
They talk about terms of reference, saying, ‘We don’t want to rush into this.’ I have spoken to Senator Brandis quite extensively, and to judges. What really needs to be done? We need more judges. The judges that are on sick leave? It is not good enough. These judges are not being replaced. They’re on long sick leave, and the court system is suffering because of it. We need more registrars to actually take the workload off the judges and have their input into the mentions, which will alleviate the pressure on the courts. DVOs need to be addressed as well and heard in family law courts, not other courts, so that the judges have a clear understanding of the litigants.
I do believe that prenuptial agreements should be drawn up and presented before the courts so that both parties will have an agreement about their properties and also about their children.
We need more centres so that, once the courts allow supervised visits, we don’t have organisations like Relationships Australia denying men access to their centres, as I know can be the case. But, also, the fact is that men—or women, on the odd occasion—should not have to wait months before they can actually see their children. I think it’s disgraceful, and I know of cases where they only see their children for a few hours a year.
Also, legal aid needs to be addressed. People cannot afford these costs, and they are actually trying to represent themselves in these courts.
I finish on this note. Everyone’s screaming for marriage equality. Well, how about divorce and parental equality?
Chamber Senate on 4/09/2017 Item MATTERS OF PUBLIC IMPORTANCE – Family Court Speaker: Hanson, Sen Pauline/ Parliment Transcript used for reporting Truth in News Reporting.