Family law overhaul aimed at stopping abusive partners manipulating system

Domestic abusers will be barred from repeatedly dragging their victims through courts and a legal presumption of shared parenting responsibilities will be scrapped in what domestic violence campaigners say will prevent partners from weaponising the courts against their families.

Statistics released by the Family Court in December revealed a risk of family violence in 80 per cent of parenting disputes before the court, and a risk of child abuse in 70 per cent of matters.

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has announced an overhaul of the family law system.

Alex Ellinghausen

An exposure draft of family law amendments released by Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus aims to put children’s welfare at the heart of legal decisions by replacing complex factors judges need to consider with streamlined principles surrounding the child’s best interests.

“These long overdue proposed reforms replace the often confusing law around parenting arrangements with a simpler child-focused framework that will guide parents who can agree on their own post-separation parenting arrangements,” Dreyfus said of the proposed reforms.

Courts will be given a new power to restrain someone from persistently filing family law applications against a partner if it is likely to cause them harm.

Once this order is in place, further applications would first be assessed to ensure that they are not “vexatious, frivolous or an abuse of proceedings”.

Full Stop Australia advocacy manager Angela Lynch said the organisation supported the measure, but added that more needed to be done to protect victims of family violence from litigation and legal system abuse.

Lynch said one further measure would be to enable the Family Court to identify cases at an early stage where a party was likely to manipulate the system.

Griffith University law school senior lecturer Zoe Rathus said removing the presumption of equal parenting was the “absolute key” in the announced reforms due to a long-running misunderstanding that parents involved in litigation were owed equal time with their children.

She described the presumption as a “gift to the wrong people”.

“For a particularly coercively controlling parent, an order for shared parental responsibility means after separation you still have an avenue open for ongoing intimidation and harassment,” Rathus said.

The changes will also require in the majority of cases for an independent children’s lawyer to meet with children involved in disputes to make sure their views are taken into account; will lower the threshold for the appointment of children’s lawyers in cases of international child abduction; and expand the definition of family for First Nations children to be more inclusive of cultural factors.

The Family Court was controversially merged with the Federal Circuit Court by the former Coalition government in 2021, despite vocal criticism from lawyers and Labor.

The institution has been subject to multiple inquiries, including by One Nation senator Pauline Hanson, who was selected by former prime minister Scott Morrison to co-chair a committee probing family law, and accused women of fabricating claims to win custody disputes.

Dreyfus said the draft amendments implemented recommendations from the Australian Law Reform Commission’s 2019 report, as well as elements of a government response to the inquiry of which Hanson was a part.

“In the nine years the former government was in office there were at least two dozen reviews into the family law system, with hundreds of recommendations that were simply ignored,” Dreyfus said.

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