The ALRC Family Law System Review Discussion Paper – what can we expect?

5 September 2018
Rose Lockie, Partner, Melbourne

The Australian Law Reform Commission (“ALRC”) will issue its Discussion Paper in October 2018 in relation to the pending Family Law System Inquiry (also known as the ‘Family Law System Review’). The Discussion Paper will set out the Commission’s preliminary proposals for reform and invite feedback from all sections of the community.

What can we expect from the Discussion Paper? A recent presentation by one of the ALRC Commissioners, Professor Helen Rhoades at the Australian Institute of Family Studies conference in Melbourne provides some signposts.

The Inquiry’s terms of reference, framed by the Government in May 2017, asked the Commission to consider a broad range of matters, including the following:

  • the opportunities for appropriate, early and cost-effective resolution of family law disputes
  • the best ways to inform decision-makers about the best interests of children, and the views held by children in family disputes
  • whether traditional court processes support the safety of children and other family members and resolve matters in the best interests of children
  • the opportunities for collaboration, coordination, and integration between different parts of the family law system, and
  • how to improve the clarity and accessibility of the law.

In summarising concerns raised in submissions to the Inquiry’s initial Issues Paper, Rhoades identifies 5 areas of concern. It is possible to interpret the concerns as objectives that may underscore the recommendations that will be published at the conclusion of the Inquiry in the Commission’s Final Report (due to be delivered to the Attorney-General by 31 March 2019.) The 5 areas of concern are:

  1. To ensure that the family law system prioritises the safety and wellbeing of children;
  2. That the family law system contain a mix of non-adversarial processes, the use of which is encouraged whenever it is appropriate;
  3. That families are offered ”a single entry point” to the family law system and have access to integrated pathways between services;
  4. That personnel that work with families be culturally diverse and possess cultural competence so that the workforce is responsive to the needs of families; and
  5. That services within the family law system are affordable and able to be understood and accessed by all people with family law needs.

Apart from the Government’s contemplation of a single Court to deal with family law cases, which the Government has undertaken separate to the Family Law System Review, what are the actual elements of the family law system that may change? Here are 3 possibilities that we have identified:

a) The legislative framework in parenting cases under Part VII of the Family Law Act (Cth) 1975 is likely to be simplified. Why? Amendments to the Act in 2006 introduced a ‘presumption of equal shared parental responsibility’ which also became the means by which the Court is required to consider whether ”equal shared time” or ”substantial and significant” time is in the best interests of the child and reasonably practicable in contested cases where the presumption applies.

Since 2010 this more complex ”legislative pathway” has been described by Judges of the Family Court as being like a ”dilemma of labyrinthine complexity”.[1] It would be possible to simplify Part VII of the Act to make it easier to follow and work with in practice (which is important for parties preparing for mediation, not just parties and lawyers in court) while keeping shared parenting outcomes in mind.

b) The framework for our property settlement law may also be revised. Under Part VIII of the Act, the property settlement provisions are based on a ”discretionary property regime” rather than a ”community property regime.” The current ”discretionary” approach, grossly simplified, involves gathering evidence about contributions to assets and liabilities, gathering evidence about people’s needs in future, and making assessments about both of the latter in order to arrive at a ”just and equitable” outcome. It can be a time-consuming process and opinions can reasonably differ between experienced lawyers (and between Judges) in a good number of cases. The advantage however is that justice is tailored to the circumstances of the individual case, recognising that every case is different.

In contrast, a ”community” approach involves the use of fixed rules or formula, for example, that all property is automatically shared 50:50 upon relationship or marriage breakdown. There are different community property regimes in various parts of the world; what they have in common is an intent to provide greater predictability about the property settlement outcome and a more efficient process to document and implement it. Criticisms of the community approach are that it results in serious injustice in many cases and unjust outcomes disproportionately affect women more than men.

If we were to contemplate a move to a community property regime in Australia, we would see an increase in the use of pre-nuptial agreements, and other financial agreements, as people seek to avoid the potential unfairness of fixed rules and define their own settlements in the event of the breakdown of the marriage or de facto relationship.

c) Giving a stronger voice to the views of children in parenting cases. This may be done by promoting the greater use of ”child-inclusive mediation” in appropriate cases. Greater funding of child inclusive mediation would be suitable for families that are attempting to negotiate arrangements using the publicly funded Family Relationship Centres. This intervention also works well for a proportion of families that are before the court.

Back in the 1990’s, the counselling section of the Family Court of Australia provided pre-filing counselling for parents that had separated, or never lived together. Parents could avail themselves of the expertise and wisdom of family consultants employed by the Court without a court application having been filed. A client could instruct their solicitor to book a session of confidential counselling to encourage the parents to reach an early agreement about the care of the child and spend time arrangements. The agreement rate was relatively high.

If additional resources could be devoted to the courts for the courts to scale up the use of inter-disciplinary teams to work with families in high conflict, the return on investment would be satisfied by higher settlement rates and a reduction in the use of Judges. Equally if not more importantly, a return to the orientation of the Family Court as ”a helping Court” through the modern use of collaborative processes would give Registrars and Judges more options and improve outcomes for many children and parents.

Universally, clients with family law needs transition through the emotional adjustment of separation and divorce as we assist them resolve one or more of the legal issues of parenting, property settlement, spousal maintenance, divorce and child support. Please contact one of our partners if someone you know may benefit from our advice and experience.

[1] See the statement of Faulks DCJ, Boland and Stevenson JJ in Marvel & Marvel (No. 2) [2010] FamCAFC 101: ”The legislative pathway to be considered since the amendments in 2006 is convoluted. It has been aptly described by Warnick J in Zabini & Zabini [2010] FAMCA 10 as ”a dilemma of labyrinthine complexity.”” [At 87.]

Authored by:
Paul Lewis, Partner

This update does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. It is intended only to provide a summary and general overview on matters of interest and it is not intended to be comprehensive. You should seek legal or other professional advice before acting or relying on any of the content.

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