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Government releases family law reform plans

Briefs

Cite as: (2004) 78(9) LIJ, p. 14

New Family Court Chief Justice Diana Bryant and legal groups have backed federal government plans to significantly reform the area of family law.

Prime Minister John Howard announced on 29 July that the centrepiece of the reform was the proposed establishment of 65 community-based Family Relationship Centres across Australia to provide counselling and advice to couples.

The centres would provide couples with the chance to resolve child custody disputes without going to court, assist couples immediately following their separation and provide pre-marriage education.

Among the other proposed reforms are:

  • changes to the Family Law Act 1975 to place greater emphasis on shared parental responsibility after separation;
  • greater recognition of grandparents both in the law and in access to services;
  • a combined registry for the Family and Federal Magistrates Courts; and
  • a significant expansion in family services, including an immediate $15 million increase in funds for 2004/05 to help current programs.

The reforms stemmed from the Every Picture Tells a Story report released last December by the House of Representatives Standing Committee on the Family and Community Affairs.

The federal government rejected one of the report’s major recommendations, the establishment of a Families Tribunal to hear cases without lawyers.

Chief Justice Bryant welcomed the establishment of the Family Relationship Centres.

She said it was the long-held view of the Court that a formal hearing with a judge should be regarded as the last resort.

“I hope [the centres] will result in parents being able to resolve disputes in a much more child-focused way, which will ultimately mean better outcomes for all families, particularly children.”

The Law Council of Australia (LCA) said the reforms were a “step in the right direction”.

LCA president Bob Gotterson QC said changes affirming the right of children to be with both parents was positive, but warned that there was a limit to what court orders could achieve for families.

“Real change in a way that parents share the care of their children after separation requires change in workplace structures and the way in which families organise themselves,” he said.

Shadow federal Attorney-General Nicola Roxon said the proposals were too little, too late to assist families that have been hurt by mounting financial pressures caused by the federal government’s policies over the past eight years.

Ms Roxon said she supported the extra funds given to family service programs under the proposal, but said more needed to be done to support parents and children during family breakdowns.

The government plans to release a discussion paper on the implementation of the proposed reforms and will seek input from the community.

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