Friday, 20 February 2009

Attorney_General opens Inaugural Family Law Systems Conference

Federal Attorney-General has opened the inaugural Family Law System Conference in Canberra, tot which 200 handpicked delegates were invited, including my partner Julie Harrington. Here is an edited version of the Attorney's speech:



3. While there have been a number of positive
changes made to the family law system recently,
I think that the recent tragic death of Darcey
Freeman reminds us that we can never be
complacent about reviewing what can be done
better.
4. My vision for the family law system is one that
is fair, simple, affordable and accessible by all.
A system in which all the elements work
seamlessly together.
A system that addresses the often complex needs
of families and is able to respond to different
circumstances such as family violence, child
abuse, mental health issues, drug and alcohol
abuse.
And a system that ensures that the best interests
of children are paramount.
5. My vision can only be achieved by all of us
having a common goal and working together as
a unified family law system.
6. In these difficult economic times it is more
important than ever that our justice system be
accessible and effective not only to deal with an
increased number of financial disputes -
including an increase in personal insolvency and
consumer credit and debt - but also to deal with
the inevitable increased stress on families and
increase in family breakdown.
7. Well targeted legal assistance programs are also
a key part of ensuring families, especially
disadvantaged and vulnerable families, are able
to get legal assistance to understand their rights
and responsibilities – and help them resolve
their family law matters.
8. I am pleased that the theme of the conference is
focused on achieving better access to justice.
9. Access to justice is not only about the courts and
the legal system, it extends to the many ways
people try to make sense of the laws that relate
to them in daily life, and the situations where
they may feel their rights are being affected.
10. It’s about ensuring our legal system provides
sufficient flexibility so that people have a range
of options available, from formal alternative
dispute resolution processes to informal
negotiations.
11. But it is not just about dispute resolution.
People must be able to understand the law if it is
to be effective.
A key component of a proper approach to
enhancing access to justice of all Australians
should include increasing individuals’ capacity
to access and understand information.
12. The current civil courts system is achieving
good results for many Australian families.
However, it can and must do better for all
Australian families.
13. We need to keep looking for innovative ways to
improve the family law system to ensure that it
is fair, simple, affordable and accessible by all.
14. In other areas of law, the government is also
taking action to improve access to justice
including to address the cost of justice.

Integrated Family Law System
15. We need to focus on strengthening services and
strengthening relationships in the family law
system.
16. Enhancing communication and professional
links is essential in this.
17. That is why in July last year I convened a
roundtable, with representatives from key
organisations in the family law system, to
identify ways to improve integration in the
system and better manage entrenched conflict.
18. The outcomes from the roundtable have formed
the agenda for this conference.
19. A key aim for the next two days is to look at
ways to build an integrated family law system
that encompasses the courts, legal aid
commissions, community legal centres, private
practitioners, government-funded family
relationship services and government agencies.
20. To achieve this, the conference will explore the
development of an agreed national blueprint to
identify clear client pathways and ensure that
clients exit the system with the best possible
outcome, regardless of the entry point.
Family Violence and Child Abuse
21. It is critically important that in developing this
blueprint we focus on improving outcomes for
children in high conflict disputes.
22. It is an unacceptable statistic that violence,
abuse and assault afflict one in three Australian
women and their families.
Most of you would be aware that the Australian
Government is working together to address
these issues.
23. The Rudd Government is currently developing
a national plan to reduce violence against
women and their children, and a national child
protection framework.
24. These strategies will, in part, deal with
improving the way cases involving family
violence and child abuse are managed and
ensure that the family law system is effective in
handling such cases.
25. The family law system already plays an integral
role identifying children at risk and helping to
protect people, but more could be done.
26. We all have a responsibility to be vigilant in
screening and identifying, at the earliest possible
stage, at-risk families and taking steps to ensure
that they are supported through the system.
27. We must also find better ways of working across
Commonwealth and State jurisdictions.
This means ensuring family court judges have
all information available about risks to children
at the earliest opportunity.
28. We must make sure that the Commonwealth
and the States are not spending time creating
more work for each other, instead of focusing on
the best interests of children.
And this means the system must be flexible
enough to enable the courts to consider all
options for children.
29. So we’re looking for solutions where access is
easier, where delivery is more effective and
timely, and where children can receive better
outcomes....
Courts
31. We also need to develop a framework to help
people who are unable to agree on
arrangements for their children to resolve
conflicts fairly, simply and effectively.
32. To help achieve this, I am considering a broad
range of options to make our federal courts
more flexible, and to minimise the costs of
litigation.
33. My view is that separating families and children
should not have to work through their issues
alone, but should be able to access services to
assist them through the process.
34. Where they are unable to resolve differences,
court resources and services should be available
to ensure issues in dispute are identified early
and resolved.
35. Last year my Department, assisted by
consultant Des Semple, conducted a review of
family law services provided by the federal
courts.
36. A report was released in November, along with
a consultation paper, seeking further public
comment on the review’s recommendations and
proposed initiatives to streamline procedures in
family law matters.
37. The consultation finished earlier this month and
I’m now considering the submissions that have
been made...
40. It’s also of critical importance to the community
that we have effective and timely delivery of
justice.
Alternatives to Courts
41. One matter you will have the opportunity to
debate tomorrow is whether court should be the
only option when parents can’t agree.
42. Currently, litigation is the only arena for those
families unable to reach agreement through
dispute resolution services....
[Legal Assistance]
44. Legal assistance services are also integral to an
effective family law system....
46. Early legal assistance can help to ensure legal
problems can be resolved early before they
escalate or contribute to entrenched
disadvantage...
A significant part – about 82 per cent – of all
Commonwealth legal assistance services is
focused on prevention and early intervention
through community legal education, advice and
mediation services.
49. I have asked my Department to develop a
strategic framework, taking a holistic approach
to the management of Commonwealth legal
assistance programs.
50. The framework will be aimed at improving
access to justice for the most disadvantaged
families by building links between programs,
facilitating resource sharing and delivering
services collaboratively.
51. I will also be working with my counterparts in
the States and Territories to develop a whole of
government approach to achieve collaboration
in the delivery of legal assistance services, to
achieve real benefits for vulnerable families.
52. The family law system also needs to be sensitive
to the family relationship issues experienced by
Indigenous and culturally and linguistically
diverse people.
We need to consider innovations to the justice
system more broadly that better engage
Indigenous Australians and break cycles of
crime and violence in Indigenous families and
communities.

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