The federal government has been accused of outsourcing policy over its proposed “parenting management hearings” to resolve family law disputes after it was revealed that it was modelled almost entirely on a paper by an outspoken critic of the Safe Schools program.
Safe Schools critic Professor Patrick Parkinson has also said he briefed chief justices of the federal and family courts on the $12.7m initiative, expected to be piloted in Parramatta. Labor and the Australian Law Council have said the pilot scheme raises significant constitutional issues.
Announced in Tuesday’s federal budget, the program would see parties in family law disputes represent themselves before an inquiry that would also gather evidence to make binding decisions.
Parkinson, a professor of family law at Sydney University and a vocal critic of the anti-bullying and LGBTQI support program, Safe Schools, told ABC radio in Sydney the proposals put to the government had been designed by himself and Brian Knox SC.
“It is really a plan to help those who would otherwise have to represent themselves in the courts,” he said. “An environment that isn’t really designed for self-represented people”.
He also rejected criticism there hadn’t been adequate consultation, saying it was only a budget announcement so far, and that he had briefed some chief justices of the family and federal courts.
Parkinson and Knox co-authored a paper this year on the increasing unaffordability of family law for families and governments, and the growing burden on a system which sees “no end to the trail of misery” queuing outside courtrooms”.
Rather than more resources, judges and legal aid, it recommended “a pilot program established in western Sydney or a community with a similar demographic profile, which would handle cases referred to it by the courts in which both parties either already were, or would choose to be, self-represented”.
The shadow attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, accused the government of “an extraordinary outsourcing of government policy” to Parkinson, and said the hearings weren’t an answer to the problems of the family courts.
“Astoundingly, he said he’d briefed the chief justice of the family court apparently on behalf of the government,” Dreyfus told Guardian Australia.
“There are somewhere between 1,300 and 1,400 public servants in the attorney general’s department including some senior ones who’d be the appropriate people to brief the family court.”
Dreyfus also said Parkinson’s interview was the first to reveal that legislative amendments would be needed to establish the hearings.
“That wasn’t mentioned in the attorney general’s media release or in the budget paper,” he said.
“What’s being set up here is a different decision making process under the Family Law act. In order for that to occur there would need to be amendments to the act conferring jurisdiction for this new dispute resolution mechanism.”
He said there were already dispute resolution mechanisms, like mediation, which was a consensual process.
Dreyfus and the Law Council of Australia have expressed concerns about the federal government’s proposal, including that parents wouldn’t have legal representation in a quasi-judicial setting, particularly in cases which involve domestic violence.
Parkinson dismissed the concerns, and said the hearings would likely be for people who wouldn’t have legal representation anyway.
President of the Law Council, Fiona McLeod SC, said the $12.7m would have been better invested in courts.
“We will wait to see the details of the announcement, however, at first glance it appears to raise significant constitutional and other issues,” she said.
According to Dreyfus, one in five family law matters contained contested allegations of domestic violence and a smaller but still substantial number involved allegations abuse of children. Dreyfus said these matters needed to be determined by judges.
On Friday Parkinson told the ABC the hearing panel would be chaired by an experienced senior lawyer, and could draw in others like specialists in drug and alcohol, family violence, psychologists, and psychiatrists.
Dreyfus said there had been “almost no detail in what would be radical change in handling family law disputes”.
“There is no information available as to how these appointees will be accredited or how the system will be regulated, and what safeguards would be in place to ensure the hearings are run responsibly,” he said.
“Labor is also concerned that decisions would only be reviewable by the federal court, which does not normally deal with family law matters.”
He said Brandis should fill the five vacant positions on the family and federal court circuits, and must consider if more judges and registrars were needed to alleviate the backlog of cases.
“Saying you’re going to have a pilot in Parramatta is not a solution to a nation-wide problem.”
In March chief justice of the family court, Diana Bryant, pleaded for increased funding, to help protect children by triaging serious cases of alleged child abuse.
Read More: The Guardian
By: Helen Davidson
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