Why the proposed family law reforms could finally curb family violence

Full Stop Australia has welcomed the Albanese Government’s draft legislation that will make long overdue reforms to the family law system to protect children and victims of family violence. The presumption of shared parental responsibility led to serious abuse in the system because perpetrators were able to game the system and manipulate traumatised families.

What do the changes mean for victims?

These changes will help protect victims who are in serious danger when they leave abusive relationships. The current system provides multiple opportunities for the perpetrator to engage in ongoing coercive control under the guise of following court orders. 

In a system with such high levels of family violence, the application of the presumption is dangerous, especially when adult victim-survivors and their children are before the courts at the point of separation – the very time they are most in danger of escalating or fatal violence.

What further measures can be taken to protect families?

The removal of the presumption of equal shared parental responsibility is a vital first step towards making the family law system safer for victims and their children. Full Stop Australia now wants the govt to move forward with additional measures to protect families including:

  • Develop specialised best interests’ principles for cases involving family violence that better highlight risk and safety issues for children and adult victims.

  • Make decisions earlier in the court process about the existence of family violence and ensure interim orders which address the immediate risk and safety issues.

  • Build on the existing Lighthouse model (specialised court approach to family violence) for cases involving a risk of serious or lethal family violence to support urgent and swift safety outcomes.

  • Develop more urgent and practical ways for family violence victims to physically move away from the perpetrator, particularly in circumstances of highly dangerous and potentially lethal relationships.

  • Develop earlier and better responses to litigation and system’s abuse, including a screening tool specific to identifying litigation/ system’ abuse (or risk thereof), specialised processes, and interventions that assist the court to intervene early to protect victim-survivors in high-risk matters involving system’s abuse (or risk thereof). Any response should consider the perpetrator’s use of systems broader than the family law litigation. 

  • Introduce an expanded definition of coercive control to consider patterns of behaviour over time and provide guidance about responding to competing allegations of violence with a focus on the person in most need of protection.

  • Embed family violence social workers in the court, similarly to child protection workers and police to assist court responses on family violence.

  • Ensure the overarching objectives of the legislation have a resolute focus on safety.

  • Specific recognition of family violence in property settlements to relieve the economic burden of victims of violence and their children being driven into poverty after leaving domestic and family violence relationships.

Angela Lynch is the Advocacy Manager at Full Stop Australia.