Skip to main content

Family Violence Symposium

The Hon Mark Dreyfus KC MP
Speech

*ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS OMMITTED*

Introduction

Every Australian deserves to live in safety and security.

This event takes place against the backdrop of shocking acts of violence against women in recent months, weeks and days.

Police investigations and judicial processes must be allowed to run their course without interference. But we must acknowledge the devastating consequences of this violence and the deep distress being felt in our community right now.

One death of a woman at the hands of a man is one too many. One death a week is an epidemic. It must end.

Violence against women and children has a devastating impact – it affects everyone regardless of age, cultural background, geography, income or education.

Everyone here today understands the complex dynamics that underpin family violence.

In the wake of utter personal tragedy, Australians have shown extraordinary fortitude to drive change. Australians like Rosie Batty and Tarang Chawla who are here today, and many others in this room.

You have championed and changed a national conversation. Your contributions cannot be understated.

Violence against women is not inevitable.

We must acknowledge where we are going wrong and where we can do better.

We all have a role to play in ending family violence and violence against women.

Governments, organisations, frontline services, law enforcement, the judiciary, academic institutions, families and the community must work together to end this horrific toll. We must hold perpetrators to account.

The place to start is by listening and learning from those with lived experience.

Before I was elected to the Parliament in 2007, I was at the Victorian Bar for many years. I know firsthand that the way we talk about family violence has shifted enormously in recent years.

While we have a much better understanding of family violence and violence against women than we once did, we still have much to do.

Fundamental to that shift is acknowledging that overwhelmingly, violence against women in Australia is perpetrated by men.

We have a crisis of male violence in Australia.

It is a scourge in our society and it must end.

To create lasting change, women cannot be expected to solve violence against women alone.

It’s time for men to step up.

It’s our responsibility to educate ourselves, our sons, our colleagues and our friends.

We must focus on prevention, working together and finding new ways of doing things.

We owe it to all survivors and their loved ones to do better.

Family Law

The safety of women and children is a national priority for the Albanese Labor Government. Everyone across government has a shared goal to end violence against women and children in a generation.

There are many areas of my portfolio as Attorney-General where I am working on reforms to strengthen the safety of women and children.

Family law reform is a personal and portfolio priority.

For years, parliamentary inquiries, family law experts and women and children’s safety advocates raised concerns that provisions in the Family Law Act resulted in unsafe parenting arrangements for children. In some cases, these have exacerbated situations of conflict, control and family violence for women.

Last year, we passed the Family Law Amendment Act 2023, responding to these concerns.

The reforms come into effect on the 6th of May and will contribute to a safer family law system, with measures to better protect victims and survivors of family violence, particularly children. It will establish a clearer and simpler parenting framework, which repeals the widely misunderstood presumption of equal shared parental responsibility.

In recognition that repeat and unmeritorious family law litigation can cause significant stress, trauma and harm, the reforms introduce a new harmful proceedings power allowing courts to restrain a party from initiating harmful family law litigation.

Maintaining the safety of children in the family law system must be a priority.

These reforms make it easier for judges to appoint Independent Children’s Lawyers in matters under the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.

They also pave the way to amend the Family Law (Child Abduction Convention) Regulations 1986, so that a child’s objections to return are considered consistent with the wording of the Convention.

Ultimately, these measures will assist Australian families to navigate separation through the family law system safely, while placing the best interests of children at the forefront.

Family Violence Information Sharing

Last year, we also passed the Family Law Amendment (Information Sharing) Act 2023 – a crucial step in enhancing the sharing of family violence risk information.

This also comes into effect on the 6th of May and builds on the success of the Co-location Program, which has seen child protection and policing officials from most jurisdictions co-located within family court registries.

Working with these officials, the Information Sharing Act will ensure family law courts can access a greater range of critical family violence, child abuse and neglect information from state and territory police, child protection and firearms agencies.

Having access to a more comprehensive picture of safety risks will ultimately help decision-making that promotes the best interests of children.

Property settlements

Many of you will be aware I am progressing a second tranche of family law reforms, to ensure separating couples can better understand the property decision‑making framework.

We know that many family violence victims struggle to achieve a fair division of property after separation. They may also suffer long-term economic and financial disadvantage following their relationship breakdown.

A key focus of the proposed reforms is better recognition of, and accounting for, the economic consequences of family violence in property settlements.

There is currently a high threshold for considering the financial impact of family violence in family law property disputes. This has led to its effects being assessed in fewer cases than where it is likely to be relevant.

The proposed reforms will support fair and safe resolution of property and financial matters for those affected by family violence, and will complement other improvements we have made to family law property settlements.

For example, the Commonwealth has rolled out two family law property pilot programs that help parties achieve quick, safe, fair and affordable post‑separation property settlements.

The first is the Legal Aid Commission’s Lawyer-assisted Family Law Property Mediation program. The second is the Priority Property Pools Program, known as the ‘Triple P 500’, based in the family law courts. Both programs are now fully operational across Australia.

These programs are delivering critical support to families, particularly where there has been family violence, to achieve a just and equitable resolution in post-separation property disputes, and support longer-term financial wellbeing.

I thank the family law courts and broader family violence sector for your contributions to the development of these significant reforms.

Lighthouse project

Another key initiative, which demonstrates what we can achieve when we work together to combat gender-based violence, is the Lighthouse Project.

The Lighthouse Project is a collaboration between government and courts, which has seen a fundamental shift in the way the courts identify and manage risks to family safety.

This world-leading initiative has helped shape the allocation of resources and the urgency given to cases based on a safety risk assessment. It ensures matters with a high risk of family violence appear before a registrar at the earliest point in time after screening.

By prioritising the hearing of these matters, the courts can deliver better support to vulnerable parties and children to resolve proceedings in a safe, child-centred, accessible and timely way.

International child abduction measures

From an international perspective, the Government has been striving to improve the safe implementation of the Hague Convention in Australia.

As part of the National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children, we are introducing a new Commonwealth legal financial assistance scheme for parents responding to an application for the return of a child.

Currently, the government meets the legal costs associated with seeking the return of a child, and a defending or responding parent must cover their own legal costs. Most defending parents are women, primary carers for their children, and allege they were experiencing family violence.

The new Scheme will allow defending parents to apply for government funding to pay for legal costs to respond to the return application. 

Access to legal representation and advice for defending parents in Convention cases will strengthen legal justice and safety outcomes for women and children in particular, and families and the community as a whole.

We have also provided funding to the FCFCOA and the Family Court of Western Australia, to enhance the delivery of alternative dispute resolution and child assessments. These initiatives provide early intervention pathways in Convention matters, and are complemented by the roll out of specialist social support services and counselling for parents, provided by International Social Services Australia.

Coercive control

Coercive control almost always underpins family and domestic violence – and developing our shared understanding of coercive control is crucial to prevention and early intervention.

On 22 September 2023, alongside my state and territory counterparts, I released the National Principles to Address Coercive Control in Family and Domestic Violence, outlining a shared, national understanding of coercive control and its impacts.

The National Principles will help raise awareness of coercive control, inform more effective responses to family and domestic violence, and promote more consistent support and safety outcomes for victim-survivors.

Building on this landmark agreement, in March I launched new resources to help victims and survivors, their families, friends and frontline professionals to identity patterns of behaviour that amount to coercive control.

I thank everyone who contributed to the development of the National Principles, particularly the victim-survivors and their families who shared their experiences, and the organisations who tirelessly advocate for them – many of whom are here today.

The Government is also progressing work to support training for legal practitioners on coercive control, which will help embed the National Principles as a common foundation for legal practitioners across the country.

We are also developing and delivering a national training and education package to enhance law enforcement capability to more effectively identify and respond to victim-survivors of family, domestic and sexual violence.

Justice sector training and education is a critical element of effective responses to family violence, which is why the Government also continues to co-fund, with the states and territories, the National Domestic and Family Violence Bench Book, and the Family Violence in the Court training program.

Forced Marriage

Another issue we are working to address is forced marriage. Forced marriage is a slavery-like practice, that can deprive victims of their fundamental human rights.

The Government is developing a coordinated national response to strengthen civil protections and remedies for victim-survivors of forced marriage.

It is expected that this work will complement Australia’s existing forced marriage response, including the new Forced Marriage Specialist Support Program, which is due to commence in early 2025.

ALRC Enquiry

In January, I announced the commencement of the Australian Law Reform Commission’s inquiry into justice responses to sexual violence.

One in five women in Australia has experienced sexual violence since the age of 15.

It is completely unacceptable that for many victims and survivors, seeking justice only adds to the trauma they experience.

This inquiry will look at how we can improve victims’ and survivors’ experiences in the justice system by examining relevant laws and legal frameworks, justice sector practices, supports for victims and survivors, and transformative approaches to justice.

We also established a sexual violence lived-experience Expert Advisory Group to ensure that the real-life experience of victims and survivors are front and centre in the inquiry. The Expert Advisory Group will also advise government on the implementation of its recommendations.

National Legal Assistance Partnership

The final matter I'd like to mention to you is the National Legal Assistance Partnership. As many of you will be well aware, the National Legal Assistance Partnership has been reviewed prior to negotiating the new agreement to commence in 2025.

The current NLAP funds legal assistance providers to deliver low or no cost family violence related support. These critical services provide court support and advocacy, safety planning and risk assessment, and holistic collaboration with relevant support services.

Recent additions to the NLAP, such as the lawyer assisted family law property mediation program, have played a pivotal role in supporting parties to reach property settlement agreements in cases where there may have been a history of family violence, including financial abuse.

As we work through negotiations with states and territories to agree on the next National Legal Assistance Partnership, the importance of legal assistance for families impacted by family and domestic violence will be at the front of my mind.

In addition to the NLAP, the Government funds a range of other legal assistance measures that support the safety of women and children. These include:

  • post-disaster legal assistance funding to support women leaving abusive relationships where the likelihood of family violence is heightened,
  • funding for legal assistance to support case management reforms implemented by the FCFCOA, and
  • resources for refugees pursuing protection visa applications.

Conclusion

There is a great deal of work underway across the Government that contributes to the safety of women and children.

In addition to my work in the Attorney-General’s portfolio, much of which I have outlined today, my colleague the Minister for Social Services, Amanda Rishworth, is advancing a significant agenda through the National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children.

The Minister for Employment, Tony Burke, has led the development and passage of landmark legislation to protect and promote women’s safety in the workplace.

We now have 10 days paid family and domestic violence leave.

Led by the Minister for Women, Katy Gallagher, we have a Gender Equality Strategy. Senator Gallagher also does an outstanding job promoting the economic equality of women.

Many of these reforms would not have been possible without the tireless advocacy of women – in workplaces, the union movement and of course, in the family violence sector. I thank everyone in this room for your contributions.

Today’s Symposium presents us with the opportunity to reflect on our progress, consider lessons learnt, and work together to end violence against women.

It also gives us a chance to come together during a difficult time and say resolutely: Enough is enough.

There is much more work to be done to prevent family violence and protect and support those affected by it.

I look forward to continuing to work alongside all of you to create a society where women and children can finally live free from violence.

Thank you.