Family law changes a step in the right direction
In 2006, the Australian Government introduced a series of changes to the family law system. These included changes to the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) through the Family Law Amendment (Shared Parental Responsibility) Act 2006 (Cth) (SPR Act 2006) and changes to the family relationship services system. The Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) was commissioned by the Australian Government Attorney-General's Department and Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs to undertake an evaluation of the impact of the changes. The evaluation was based on data from 12,198 separated parents. The study also examined the views of 653 family law professionals and analysed 1892 family law court files.
Most separated parents participating in the research made limited use of family law system services. Those who used formal services tended to be affected by complex issues, such as family violence, substance misuse and mental ill health concerns. The evaluation found the Family Law reforms had improved the identification of family violence and screening practices and led to modest, positive shifts in parenting arrangements when children's safety was a concern.
Analysis of family law court files showed fewer children were in shared care arrangements where there were allegations of family violence or child abuse, down from 19 per cent prior to the reforms to 11 per cent after 2012. The data based on parents' reports shows that there is a strong association between arrangements involving no time or daytime only between a parent and the child where there are safety concerns among separated parents generally. However there are some arrangements involving more time than this for children in these circumstances.
Of cases that went to court and were decided by a judge, orders for shared parental responsibility decreased from 51 per cent to 40 per cent following the reforms.
The analysis of court files showed that orders for supervised time with a parent remained stable and were rare. Orders for no face-to-face contact also remained rare. A greater number of cases now have Notices of Risk filed (an increase of almost 100%) and are consequently referred to child protection agencies.
The research highlights reservations among family law system professionals about the capacity of the system to adequately deal with cases involving family violence or child abuse concerns. The need for improvement in practice was evident in the finding that after the reforms 3 in 10 separated parents interviewed said they had 'never been asked' about family violence or safety concerns when using dispute resolution, lawyers and courts to resolve parenting matters. In 2014, across all three legal pathways, 38 per cent of the parents reported holding concerns about family and domestic violence, but not disclosing them during the dispute.
In the report’s concluding remarks it is noted that ‘the evidence of poorer wellbeing for children where mothers have safety concerns - across the range of parenting arrangements, but particularly acutely in shared care-time arrangements - highlights the importance of identifying families where safety concerns are pertinent and assisting them to make arrangements that promote the wellbeing of their children’.
Read the Report
 AIFS 2015 Evaluation of the 2006 family law reforms. p4.