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Family and Relationship Services Australia 2023 National Conference

The Hon Mark Dreyfus KC MP

I begin by acknowledging the people of the Yugambeh language region, the traditional owners of the land on which you meet this week. I pay my respects to their elders past and present and extend this respect to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people attending the conference today.

And I reiterate the Government’s commitment to implementing the Uluru Statement from the Heart in full – beginning with a referendum to enshrine an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice in the Australian Constitution during this term of Parliament.

Thank you for inviting me to take part in the Family and Relationship Services Australia 2023 National Conference. I am sorry I am unable to join you in person today.

I acknowledge those joining you, including:

  • my colleague and Minister for Social Services, The Honourable Amanda Rishworth MP
  • Catherine Liddle, CEO of SNAICC – National Voice for our Children • Micaela Cronin, Australia’s first Domestic, Family and Sexual Violence Commissioner and
  • Chair of the FRSA Board, Glenda Devlin.

I acknowledge the ongoing work of Jackie Brady and the team at Family and Relationship Services Australia.

And finally, I want to directly acknowledge every one of you here today. Family relationship services support families at a time when they are navigating truly complex, challenging circumstances. You support people as they seek to resolve practical problems, like new parenting and financial arrangements, while undergoing the intense stress a separation brings.

Most separations do not end up in the court system. But it is clear that for those that do, the experience can often be more traumatic than it needs to be.

In the Budget last week, the Albanese Government allocated $71 million towards making the family law system safer and simpler for separating parents and their children.

These measures included:

  • $33.1 million to continue and expand nationally the Family Law Priority Property Pools program. This helps separated couples - including women at risk of domestic or family violence - to achieve quick, fair and affordable settlements in small property disputes via a proven, streamlined court process;
  • $18.4 million to improve the safety of women and children in international child abduction cases under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction; and
  • $13.4 million to extend the Lawyer-Assisted Family Law Property Mediation program, which funds state and territory Legal Aid Commissions to provide legal advice, advocacy and support for vulnerable separating couples to mediate and reach agreement on small value property disputes.

This is support that is needed now, but it’s clear to the Government that reform of the system as a whole is needed to make it safer, more accessible and simpler to use for all Australian families.

On 29 March, I introduced the long overdue Family Law Amendment Bill 2023.

This legislation is based on a simple premise.

The Albanese Government will restore the best interests of children as the key guiding principle of the family law system.

The new laws are informed by the more than two dozen inquiries into the family law system over the past nine years, including the 2019 Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry and the 2021 Joint Select Committee inquiry.

The Bill makes significant changes to Part VII of the Family Law Act, which relates to children.

These long overdue reforms will replace the often-confusing law around parenting arrangements with a simpler child-focused framework.

It means that for the vast majority of separated parents, who agree on their post-separation parenting arrangements, it will be easier to focus on what will best benefit their children.

In the minority of separations where parents can’t reach an agreement, this simpler framework will make it easier for the courts to make a decision.

The legislation also repeals the presumption of equal shared parental responsibility which is widely misunderstood to mean that parents have a right to equal time with their child.

It is an unnecessary additional step in the court’s decision-making process.

This presumption about parental responsibility has taken the focus away from the needs of children.

It has led to the unacceptable situation where abusive partners have a false belief they have a right to equal time, against the wishes of the other parent and their children. This happens inside and outside of the court as parents negotiate parenting arrangements.

The legislation recognises the importance of children having a relationship with their parents, where it is safe to do so, by preserving the ability for courts and parents to arrive at arrangements that facilitate relationships with children and their parents as well as other people who are significant to the child.

All parents have parental responsibility for their children unless in the very rare instance a court orders otherwise.

For most children, it is overwhelmingly in their best interest to have a meaningful relationship with both parents after separation. The legislation recognises this.

Other critical measures include:

  • introducing a new ‘best interests factor’ for Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander children to recognise their right to enjoy their culture, including through their connection with family, community, country and language;
  • ensuring children’s voices are heard in parenting matters by introducing a requirement for Independent Children’s Lawyers to meet directly with the children they represent;
  • protecting victims of family violence from systems abuse by restraining a party's ability to file repeated and unmeritorious applications without first obtaining court approval; and
  • establishing legal mechanisms for regulation of family law professionals and clarifying the consequences for breaching parenting orders.

This Bill brings forward the review of the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia Act 2021, so that there is a timely assessment of the restructure of the court and whether it is meeting the needs of families as intended.

With 97 per cent of parties resolving their matters outside of court, it is crucial that the Family Law Act serves both families that have parenting arrangements determined by a court, and those who arrive at their own agreements. The aim of the Bill is to provide a simpler and safer legal framework, focused on the best interests of the child in all parenting decisions, both in the court and outside of the court.

I look forward to the Bill being passed in Parliament.

The Albanese Government is also improving access to vital information from state and territory family violence and child protection systems during family law proceedings.

The Family Law Amendment (Information Sharing) Bill 2023 progresses the Government’s commitment to ending gender-based violence in a generation.

The aim of the Information Sharing Bill is to promote the safety children and adults affected by family violence, and to support informed decision-making in circumstances where there is a risk to family safety.

The Bill establishes a court-led information sharing framework, empowering the courts to seek critical safety information earlier, more quickly and at multiple stages throughout proceedings.

This important change will mean those making decisions within the family law, family violence and child protection systems will be better informed, particularly in circumstances where there is risk of child abuse, neglect or family violence.

A statutory review of the amendments is due within 12 months after commencement. This will provide an opportunity to not only ensure the measures are improving information sharing between the courts and state and territory agencies as intended, but to understand what further work may be needed.

I know many of you attending this conference provide services under the Family Relationships Services Program (FRSP). My Department administers that program.

Since its commencement, the FRSP has assisted thousands of families to manage their parenting and other separation issues outside of the court process.

While there have been many societal changes since the FRSP was introduced in the mid-2000s, the FRSP has remained substantially unchanged.

To ensure that the program is meeting the needs of families, I have asked the Department to commence a review of the FRSP.

For government to effectively support the community, it must understand the community’s needs. The challenges families face today should be reflected in program design so we can ensure the services which are most needed are the ones being prioritised.

The review will be conducted through the remainder of 2023 and into 2024. It is important that we get this right. Part of this will be engagement with you – as frontline providers who know the needs of the families coming to you. Your views are important and will be welcomed as part of the review process.

I want to reassure you that this is a Government that listens. The Family Law reform currently underway is informed by the voices of many across the sector and multiple reports.

Our goal here is to make the system simpler and safer, and to ultimately improve the experience of those who rely on it to enter into new stages of their lives.

As we progress this reform we will continue to listen to those who work in the system.

Thank you again for your commitment to the sector and the valuable contributions you make to the lives of Australian families. Enjoy your time at the FRSA 2023 National Conference.