Saturday, 22 August 2009

McClelland comments on family violence review

Here is a speech by Federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland given at the Family Violence in Focus Conference in Newcastle yesterday:

First, may I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we meet on – and pay my respects to their elders, both past and present.
· The Hon Sharon Grierson MP;
· Sandra Griffin;
· Federal Magistrate Kevin Lapthorn;

· Ladies and gentlemen. It’s a great pleasure to be here. Last year I was fortunate enough to speak at the inaugural Gateway Project conference. Since speaking at the first Gateway conference I’m pleased to see that it has developed and expanded. I’m also pleased to report that since that time, I have announced the appointment of Stewart Austin as a judge of the Newcastle registry of the Family Court of Australia. I understand that Stewart has an excellent reputation in the local area and will serve the community well.

Family Violence

I’m pleased to see that the focus of the conference this year is being placed on family violence. As Attorney-General – and as a parent – I am passionate about addressing family violence. It is a crime. And it must be treated as such. It is unacceptable that children and families in Australia continue to experience domestic violence at disturbingly high levels. Violence is not an isolated problem. It is present in each and every community and I know I have certainly met with strong advocates from the Newcastle region who are keen to raise awareness about and tackle the problem – your conference demonstrates this face.

Along with the criminal justice system, the family law system has a vital part to play in protecting children and families from harm. This means providing a family law system that provides the best possible outcomes for Australian families – rather than another trauma in already traumatic circumstances.

New Measures

That is why last month I announced a series of new measures to address family violence in the family law system. One of these measures is an extensive inquiry to identify the gaps in the law to help us reduce violence against women and children. It will be jointly undertaken by the Australian and the New South Wales Law Reform Commissions, in conjunction with other jurisdictions, and will report next year. I encourage you all to engage in this inquiry – you have considerable collective expertise.

I’ve also asked Professor Richard Chisholm to undertake a review of federal family court processes in the context of family violence. You may have seen this being reported as a review of the entire Family Law Act. This is not the case. Professor Chisholm’s terms of reference are about family violence. The shared parenting reforms of 2006 are being separately evaluated by the Australian Institute of Family Studies and they are due to report by the end of the year. I will consider their findings and make decisions about any possible change when the evidence is available, and not before.

As I mentioned, Professor Chisholm’s review is focussed firmly on family violence. He will consult relevant experts and examine whether the practices and procedures in the family courts encourage appropriate disclosures of family violence. He will also examine whether appropriate support is provided within the family court system for those who have experienced or are at risk of violence. This review will make recommendations about how the system can better support families and I look forward to receiving the report later this year.

Another measure I announced recently is the development of a training package to improve consistency in the handling of cases involving family violence, and ensure professionals are properly equipped to work with families at risk. This is an important way for professionals in the system to gain the trust of families – and the expertise to identify and deal with problems.

Collaboration is Key

One of the key aspects of addressing family violence is improving collaboration between the family law system and the state and territory child protection systems. At present, the level of collaboration between the family courts and the welfare authorities is variable. The registry of the family courts here in Newcastle reports a strong and productive relationship with the local child welfare authorities. And this results in the active exchange of information in relevant cases and a higher rate of intervention in proceedings than is experienced in other registries. I would like to further encourage this type of relationship in all registries.

Apart from intervening in proceedings, officers of the welfare authorities may have valuable information that can help the court determine the best interests of children.

At the recent meeting of the Standing Committee of Attorneys-General, I was very pleased that all Ministers agreed to explore options to improve the cooperation between the family courts and state and territory child welfare authorities. This is a vital step forward – because we do not want to be failing children who may be falling through the holes created by confusion about jurisdictional responsibilities.

Legal Assistance Pilot

I have also recently introduced a new measure aimed at strengthening an integrated approach to resolving family law disputes. This is a pilot program to provide legal representation in mediation sessions to those who have experienced or are at risk of violence.

This pilot is particularly important given my recent decision to remove the absolute prohibition on the participation of lawyers in dispute resolution processes run by Family Relationship Centres.

In my view, in the right circumstances, lawyers can assist parties to resolve their disputes out of court, including family matters. The emphasis will be on resolution. I’ve also decided to enhance the participation of legal services in Family Relationship Centres. I recently announced additional funding of $3.6 million for community legal centres and legal aid commissions to work with Centres to help families address their legal issues. I’d like to see lawyers working more closely with the Centres to help families, for example by providing legal information, legal advice, formalising agreements and participating in dispute resolution. The involvement of lawyers does not mean the process will become adversarial. In fact, I see this as an opportunity for services to work constructively together, and in a seamless way, to support families in resolving their own disputes. I am pleased that a number of community legal centres and legal aid commissions have put forward proposals for this pilot. We have received local interest and support for the provision of legal assistance services in Family Relationship Centres in Newcastle, Taree and the Central Coast. These proposals are currently being considered and applicants will be advised shortly of the outcomes of this process.

Duty Lawyer Pilots

In May this year, I was delighted to be able to allocate $200,000 to establish a pilot family law duty lawyer service with the Hunter Community Legal Centre. Funding was also provided to support similar services in Melbourne, the Dandenongs and Brisbane. The Hunter Centre has been very quick to establish its Family Law Program. It provides extended family law legal advice and assistance services to disadvantaged people in the Hunter region. These services are directed at parties who are ineligible for legal aid, who lack the means to pay for private legal advice, or who suffer from a social, economic or other disadvantage.

To ensure that the resources are used effectively, I am pleased that the Community Legal Centre and the Legal Aid Commission are working in partnership to provide quality services to those who need it most.

I understand Hunter Community Legal Centre is in the process of relocating to new premises at 50 Bolton Street. These premises provide additional office space to accommodate extra staff required for the delivery of the Family Law Program. They’re also easily accessible for clients of the service – being directly opposite the Newcastle Family Court.

I would like to acknowledge the role that Newcastle City Council has played in providing these new premises at very reasonable rates. This assistance is a good example of how a Council can help the community it serves.

Conclusion

We all have an important role in reducing family violence and providing protection for children and families. And I’m confident that with the continued attention and collaboration on this issue, we can ensure that families, especially children, are protected from harm. I’d like to thank you all for your efforts in this quest. Thank you.

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