Speeches Chris has made in the Australian Federal Parliament.

Committees - Australia's Family Law System Joint Select Committee - Report

March 16, 2021

Mr HAYES (Fowler—Chief Opposition Whip) (17:20): I too would like to make a short contribution in relation to the second interim report by the Joint Select Committee on Australia’s Family Law System. Similar to others, I commend the Chair, the Member for Menzies; and all those who participated in the inquiry, and I commend them on the report. I, like many, probably didn't give this much chance of success. I initially thought it was a short-term political fix, mainly to accommodate the head of One Nation, Pauline Hanson. But, having read the report and its 29 recommendations, I think they have done a very good job indeed.

One recommendation is for the funding of legal aid commissions and community legal centres. As the Member for Dunkley has just expressed, for many, particularly in working-class suburbs, that is the only access to the law they will have. As a consequence, it is essential that legal aid centres and community law centres are adequately funded. There is a recommendation for another 25 to 30 Registrars in the Family Court to address the backlog. The Registrars do a profoundly good job at reducing a lot of the hearing time that needs to take place, and as a consequence that is a welcomed contribution.

The report deals with the capping of legal fees at $50,000 or 10 per cent of the combined value of parties' identified properties. If you put that in a Sydney or Melbourne context, where the average property is worth over $1 million, you're talking about capping it at $100,000. No wonder people can be locked out of access to that legal system, the way it is at the moment. The ones principally being locked out are women. People can engage in litigation with a view to having one party simply give up. The system of justice for family law shouldn't be on the basis of attrition; it should be on the basis of fairness and justice for all.

The recommendation to urgently draft and release an exposure draft of the legislation to address the current misunderstanding of the equally shared parental responsibility is something I've spoken about on many occasions here, where families can get access to an apprehended violence order only for it to be misinterpreted, in terms of the access, by the Federal Circuit Court. These are things which are real. It probably doesn't sound like much to those who don't practice in the field, but certainly, particularly for people who are the victims of domestic violence, these are very real things. It's not a legal misunderstanding, but it's certainly a legal misinterpretation of the shared parental responsibility, and bringing about a change is something that's well overdue.

Another aspect I'd like to touch upon is the merging of the Family Court through the Federal Circuit Court. We've had, so far into family law, about 67 inquiries. Various recommendations have been made. In this report we have before us, 29 recommendations were made. I very much support what they have found in that regard. But we have had recommendations made by various inquiries that have occurred and yet none of those dealt with the merging of the Family Court to the Federal Circuit Court. This is something that, to be fair to the government, might have been looking into efficiencies.

The Family Court is a specialised court. Set up over 30 years ago, it was due to simply specialise in family matters. We don't have to look too far from our own electorates to see some of the issues confronting families. In my area, I get very worried about the higher instances, particularly during this COVID pandemic, of domestic violence and how that's playing out and impacting on families. Having a court that specialises in these matters makes a heck of a lot of difference. That's why I welcomed, as I said earlier, putting more Registrars on. That will actually help alleviate some of the backlog. Simply putting this into the Federal Circuit Court, which itself has a significant backlog at the moment, is not going to do anything to immediately assist families in need. At least the Family Court was a court that specialised in dealing with these matters.

From time to time there have been many debates in this place, about extensive delays, excessive legal costs—which the Member for Dunkley just spoke about—the difficulty in enforcing various court orders, and the ability to get a fair and quick resolution of matters. That's where, particularly where it does involve family violence, the Family Court really did excel.

The two most recent reports on the Family Law Court—apart from the one we're talking about now—is the Australian Law Reform Commission report in 2019 and the Henderson report. Collectively, they made 93 recommendations to improve family law. I was told, in the Senate estimates almost two years ago, that the Attorney had the government's response to the Law Reform Commission's report but they were still sitting on the desk. They haven't seen the light of day. There are 93 recommendations still sat there and have fundamentally been ignored.

Having said that, I think it is commendable that the inquiry, conducted by the Member for Menzies and all those who have participated, should bring forward these 29 recommendations. I certainly support what they have done. Against a backdrop, I didn't give much chance of success from the start. I thought it was simply a political fix, but I think they have worked through the inquiry, taking their evidence, in such a way that they have produced a commendable result. I think we need to work with them into the future to ensure that at least family law is treated in such a way that it makes the court and the access available to all families. For a court to be at least seized of the significance of family violence as being a matter of fact when addressing many of its issues. I won't take it any further than that, but I do commend this inquiry. I commend the way the committee went about that, and I support its recommendations.