Monday, 18 August 2008

McClelland's speech to Queensland Law Society, Family Law Practitioners Association Residential

Comment by Stephen Page:

On Friday and Saturday I attended the annual Queensland Law Society - Family Law Practitioners Association of Queensland Family Law Residential, which this year was held at Royal Pines Resort on the Gold Coast. I am told that 465 attendees were there, which apparently is a record. I will be posting for a little while about matters that came from the conference.

The first post, given the resources of government, is the speech that Commonwealth Attorney-General Robert McClelland gave as the opening speech, which is set out below. I should disclose that my partner, Julie Harrington, chairs the Queensland Law Society Family Law Section and the organising committee for the Residential.


The Attorney's Speech


Opening Address
Queensland Law Society
& Family Law Practitioners Association
Family Law Residential

Royal Pines Resort, Gold Coast, Qld
Friday 15 August 2008, 9.15am


[Acknowledgements]
· First, may I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we meet on – and pay my respects to their elders, both past and present.

[Other Acknowledgements]
· Chair – Julie Harrington, Managing Partner, Harrington Family Lawyers & Chair of QLS Family Law Section, Accredited Specialist – Family Law
· The Honourable Chief Justice Diana Bryant, Family Court of Australia (also speaking)
· The Honourable Chief Federal Magistrate
John Pascoe AO (also speaking)
· Distinguished guests
· Ladies and gentlemen



[Introduction]
1. It’s a pleasure to join you today to speak on National Family Law Directions.
2. There are certainly challenges involved in improving our family law system.
I welcome these challenges, as I endeavour to do all I can to strengthen cooperation between the courts, legal services, practitioners and family relationship services - and ensure that we have a family law system that can deliver the right services to those in need.

[Directions in Family Law]
An Integrated System]
3. As many of you would be aware, the effectiveness of the significant changes to family law in 2006 and the provision of new and expanded services are currently being evaluated.
4. The Australian Institute of Family Studies is conducting an extensive evaluation which will assess the legal aspects of the family law reforms, the role of new services in achieving the objectives of the reforms, and the impact of the reforms on Australian families.
5. The results of this extensive evaluation and related research will inform future Government policy directions.
6. Decisions about the family law system are too important to be based simply on isolated cases and anecdotes.
7. However, that does not mean we need to wait for the results of this evaluation to recommit ourselves to ensuring that the family law system operates in a way that best serves families in their time of need.
8. In the four years from 2007, it is projected that roughly $1.7 billion worth of taxpayers money will be spent on the family law system, be it through the Family courts, family relationship centres, legal aid or community legal services.
9. The public rightly expects that this money will be used as efficiently and as effectively as possible.
10. As Attorney-General, I have a clear vision of how I’d like the family law system to operate.
11. As much as possible, I want to see an emphasis on an integrated family law system:
· where family disputes are resolved outside courts wherever possible
· where there are effective ways of getting entrenched cases out of courts, and
· where situations of family violence and child abuse are managed safely and effectively.
12. I want to emphasise the ongoing need for bridge-building between mediators, legal practitioners and the judicial sector to help achieve these objectives.
13. And I want to ensure that there is a strong range of services in the family law system, especially to help meet the needs of people facing very difficult matters.



[Consultation]
14. This is not rhetoric but something I am very serious about achieving.
I am committed to listening to all stakeholders to broaden the dialogue on how to best support Australian families.
15. Since becoming Attorney-General, I have taken the opportunity to consult with a broad range of participants in the family law system.
16. On 28 July 2008, I invited a small, high-level group of individuals from key organisations across the sector to attend a roundtable to identify issues, strategies and concrete measures to integrate and strengthen the family law system.
I am pleased that the Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia, the Chief Federal Magistrate and the Chair of the Family Law Section of the Law Council of Australia were able to participate at the roundtable.
As well as senior representatives from the legal aid, including Indigenous legal services, and community legal sector and those involved with the delivery of family relationship services.
17. A larger summit is being planned with other participants in the family law system later this year which will build on the good work initiated by the roundtable.
18. This consultation will play an important role in informing Government policy, but this morning I’d also like to outline the steps we’ve already taken to provide a more integrated and stronger family law system.

[Family Courts]
19. Soon after coming to office the Rudd Government demonstrated its commitment to improving the efficiency, effectiveness and integration of a central element of the family law system – the courts.
20. Faced with considerable feedback that the current arrangements were not satisfactory, my Department, in consultation with Mr Des Semple, began working closely with the courts to review the delivery of family law services by the federal courts.
21. I saw this as an area where key services were not operating in the best possible way, and an area where fresh thinking was required.
22. I want the Family Court and the Federal Magistrates Court to be completely externally focussed on assisting people to resolve their differences as quickly and as cost-effectively as possible.
23. The review has considered all proposals to improve service delivery across the family law jurisdiction.
The report is due to be completed shortly.
The Government will then consider the recommendations made in the report and whether changes should be made to the structure of the federal family courts to better promote access to justice for family law litigants.

[Family Relationship Centres and Services]
24. Another area in which the Government has already demonstrated a commitment to a strong, integrated system is in the area of family relationship support.
25. If we are serious about Family Relationship Centres and other funded services providing an effective alternative to the courts, we need to ensure that these are first-rate.
· That’s why in June of this year, together with my colleague Families Minister Jenny Macklin, I announced that services to help families build strong and positive relationships would receive more than $277 million in funding from the Rudd Government over the next three years, through the extension of grants to family services providers across the country.
· We have also provided funding for the Supporting Children After Separation Program. This will help children whose parents decide they can no longer live together. The program supports these children through a range of counselling and group activities, including allowing them to have a say in the separation process.
· The Government has allocated funds for the opening of an additional 25 Family Relationship Centres across Australia.
· We have also provided an additional $400,000 for Legal Aid Commissions to enhance the delivery of family dispute resolution services to grandparents and other extended family members.

[Legal Aid and CLCs]
26. The Rudd Government is also taking steps to help some of Australia’s most vulnerable people through providing additional money to community legal centres and legal aid commissions.
27. This sector’s importance in the family law system should not be underestimated. Approximately 35% of matters handled by community legal centres involve family law matters, and 85% of Commonwealth legal aid funding is spent assisting people with family law issues.
28. Legal Aid Commissions also deal with some of the most complex family law disputes experienced by some of the most disadvantaged people in the community.
29. In the interests of a stronger service, I was pleased to announce earlier this year additional one-off legal aid funding worth $7 million. This cash boost will help to address current pressures on family law service provision in a number of legal aid commissions.
30. I also announced additional one-off funding of $10 million for the Commonwealth Community Legal Services Program, which represents the largest ever injection of funding into that Program.
31. Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus separately announced additional one-off funding injections worth $11 million for Aboriginal legal aid services, which will assist these organisations in providing a range of services, including for Indigenous families dealing with family breakdown.
32. And in the interests of a more effective service, my Department has engaged consultants KPMG to assess the family dispute resolution services provided by legal aid commissions in a national evaluation.
The evaluation is being conducted to ensure that the services continue to address the needs of legal aid clients and operate effectively within the new family law system.
I understand that KPMG is expected to finalise its report later this year.


[Best Interests of Children and Family Violence]
33. Of course, in progressing any reforms to family law the Government maintains a commitment to two key fundamentals: the protection of children and parents from violence and abuse, and ensuring the best interests of the child is always the paramount consideration.
34. We know that children involved in family disputes are affected by both the substance of the legal decisions made, and how the parents involved implement these decisions.
35. We need to ensure, wherever possible, that family law rulings build cooperation between parents, and lessen confrontation.
36. This is clearly in the best interests of the child.
37. We also need to ensure that the system protects children and their families from violence and abuse.
Family violence is a crime and cannot be tolerated in our society.
38. A positive direction being taken to address this issue is the use of the case management tool – Project Magellan.
39. Project Magellan is a good example of integration in the family law system.
40. It’s used for matters where there are allegations of serious physical or sexual abuse of a child before the court.
41. Project Magellan involves close stakeholder relations that includes the Family Court, Legal Aid, State and Territory child services and Independent Children’s Lawyers.
42. The feedback is that this initiative helps resolve family law disputes more quickly, with fewer court events, fewer judicial officers, and more settlements prior to trial.
It also results in a higher degree of goodwill and cooperation by everyone involved.
43. Magellan was recently the subject of an independent review, and has been shown to be a successful way to manage these very difficult cases.
44. It’s initiatives like this one that the Government is keen to see more of.

[Other initiatives]
45. As well as an integrated family law system, I am committed to reforms to the justice system more broadly to ensure better access to justice and the more timely resolution of disputes.
46. I welcome any initiatives to remove delays and enable the just, inexpensive and efficient resolution of disputes – and I am keen to look at ways to take this to the family law system.
47. For example, I am considering amending legislation to provide enhanced case management powers.
48. I am also committed to the greater use of alternative dispute resolution processes.
I have issued a reference to the National Alternative Dispute Resolution Advisory Council asking them to report on strategies to encourage the use of ADR.
49. I am also committed to ensuring harmonisation between the Commonwealth and the States and Territories wherever possible.
50. An example in the family law area is the landmark legislation the Government recently introduced which provides a consistent approach to de facto property disputes in a majority of States and Territories.
51. De facto couples currently have different rights in different States and Territories, and this duplication causes unnecessary difficulties, wasting time and money.
52. The Rudd Government has moved quickly to take action in this important area, ending the administrative burden faced by de facto couples and ensuring better access to justice.



[Conclusion]
53. I hope that you now have a better understanding of the Government’s vision for the family law system.
54. I realise it will take time and cooperation to bring about all the changes we need to have a much stronger family law system.
But I’m confident that we are heading in the right national direction.
55. As I’ve said previously, I’m confident that such an approach will lead to better outcomes for Australian families, and in particular their children.
56. I wish you all the best for this year’s residential.

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