THE HON MARK DREYFUS QC MP
State of the Nation Address
19th National Family Law Conference
Monday 15 August 2022
Can I begin by acknowledging the Kaurna people of the Adelaide Plains on whose lands we are gathered today.
I pay my respects to their Elders past and present. I would like to extend that respect to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples present today.
Thank you for the invitation to speak here today.
I acknowledge Chief Justice Alstergren, and his leadership of the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia during a time of great transition.
I also recognise and thank the Family Law Section of the Law Council of Australia and Chair, Di Simpson, for hosting this conference.
I thank you all for coming today and I acknowledge that the work you do is some of the most difficult work done by Australian lawyers.
History of the family law system
When the Whitlam Labor Government enacted the Family Law Act in 1975, we established a family law system that was admired around the world.
A key feature of that reform was the establishment of the Family Court of Australia; a specialist, multidisciplinary court that would serve the best interests of children and would regard the best interest of children as the paramount consideration when resolving family disputes.
Since that time the composition of families, and family life, has changed, as has society’s understanding of issues like family violence and abuse of children.
Expectations on the family law system to help families navigate separation, and the often multiple issues they are facing, are significant.
Issues in the family law system
Recent inquiries, including the 2019 Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry and the 2021 Australian Parliament Joint Select Committee inquiry have highlighted the challenges facing the family law system.
Extensive court delays, protracted litigation, inaccessible support services, and inadequate protection for people at risk of family violence are just some of the issues that have dogged the family law system for many years.
It is 47 years since the enactment of the Family Law Act and the establishment of the Family Court, and there is much to be done to address these current challenges.
Labor’s vision for the family law system
The Albanese Government is committed to restoring the family law system so that it is accessible, safe, properly resourced, simpler to use, and delivers justice and fairness for all Australian families.
It is critical the system protects those at risk of family violence – including children and young people – who are victims and survivors of family violence in their own right.
We must ensure that children’s best interests are always the paramount consideration in resolving parenting disputes.
The Government recognises the importance of children and young people’s voices being heard in the family law system on matters that affect them.
I recently met with the National Children’s Commissioner to discuss how we can better ensure children’s safety and best interests are at the heart of decision-making.
The family law system should also be accessible to all families with complex needs and people from all of Australia’s diverse cultures.
The Government is committed to ensuring that legal assistance providers and community-based services are accessible, affordable and well-equipped, to help separating families resolve disputes in a timely and safe manner, so litigation is a last resort.
Women’s Legal Service Funding
Practitioners here today will understand more than most the extent of unmet need for legal services.
Women’s legal services in particular are under enormous pressure across the country. Many of you volunteer your valuable expertise at those services.
You may be staggered to realise, as I recently discovered on becoming Attorney-General, that not all of the $129 million announced by the previous Government in last year’s Budget as funding for Women’s Legal Services did in fact go to Women’s Legal Services.
Women’s Legal Services badly need all of this funding but figures I have been provided indicate that, in Tasmania for example, just one quarter of the funding actually flowed to the Women’s Legal Service Tasmania.
It is a similar story in most states and territories, although I am pleased to say that in Queensland almost all of the funding actually went to the Women’s Legal Service Queensland.
I’m determined to ensure that this does not happen again and I will do what I can to ensure that funding goes where it is intended and women in crisis get the support that they need.
The Government is committed to supporting the legal assistance sector to deliver valuable assistance to Australians most in need.
We have made a $25 million commitment to increase legal assistance through Community Legal Centres in natural disaster-affected areas; restore funding to the Environmental Defenders Office; support the leadership of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services; and support the work of the National
Family Violence Prevention Legal Services Forum, which advocates for First Nations people experiencing family violence, especially women and children.
I am pleased to confirm the Government is delivering an additional $16.5 million in legal assistance funding to meet increased demand for legal representation to support the Federal Circuit and Family Court’s case management reforms. By assisting vulnerable parties earlier in their matters, this funding in turn ensures the Court can realise the full benefits of its enhanced approach to case management.
But there is more to be done.
A comprehensive review of the National Legal Assistance Partnership will commence early next year. All stakeholders will have an opportunity to contribute to this process, to ensure the legal assistance sector is equipped to deal with future challenges.
This Government will always be grateful for the work that legal assistance providers undertake to assist vulnerable Australians.
It has been less than a year since the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia was formally established.
The abolition of the Family Court of Australia and the establishment of the new court has been a substantial change to the family law system established in 1975.
I understand that Chief Justice Alstergren will speak to the court transition.
There is no denying that reform to the family law system was long overdue, and not helped by the family law system being starved of resources for almost a decade.
I acknowledge a number of impressive achievements that have occurred alongside the merger. These innovative solutions to case management processes are attributable to the hard work of court officers and judges.
I note that these solutions, including the introduction of a National Contravention List, have seen a dramatic reduction in wait times for matters to be heard by the courts, and an increase in the early resolution of matters.
The Government will continue to monitor and review the operation of the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia, to ensure that it is responsive to the needs of litigants, and, importantly, that those at risk of family violence are protected and supported.
Family Court of Western Australia
I also acknowledge the work of the Family Court of Western Australia.
I recently announced that the Hon Justice Michael Berry had been dually commissioned to Division 1 of the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia and the Family Court of Western Australia. Justice Berry's appointment fills a new position created in the Family Court of Western Australia and funded by the Commonwealth.
I commend the Courts for their hard work and dedication.
There would be no disagreement in this room that families using the family law system should be protected from harm.
Family and domestic violence is a scourge on society, and it is no more prevalent than in family law proceedings.
So, I commend Chief Justice Alstergren, Judges, and the Court staff, for their initiative in launching the Lighthouse Project pilot in Adelaide, Brisbane and Parramatta.
The Lighthouse Project is a fundamental shift in the way the Court identifies and manages family safety risk and family violence.
This is supported by the co-location of child protection and policing officials in Court registries across Australia to improve information sharing between the family law, family violence and child protection systems.
The Government supports these innovative programs that are making families safer.
Family Law Act
From its inception, the Family Law Act has prioritised safety in its provisions, especially the safety of children.
However, I am concerned that provisions in the Family Law Act are not well understood by families it is designed to protect.
The parenting provisions in Part VII of the Family Law Act had around 3000 words in 1975. It now has about 50,000. How many parents would be able to negotiate their way around those provisions without a lawyer?
An enormous number of unrepresented litigants appear in the family courts each year. There are thousands of families who negotiate settlements outside the court system with no legal assistance. Provisions designed to protect families are ineffective if they are not understood.
Since 2017 there have been 126 recommendations to improve the family law system, including 60 recommendations from the Australian Law Reform Commission.
Many of these recommendations are directed at making the family law system safer and easier to use. Importantly, many recommendations are designed to ensure safer outcomes for children.
I will consider each of the recent reports and I intend to act on priority recommendations.
Integrity of the courts
A key part of our Government’s vision for a better future was returning to the principles of transparency and integrity.
We are already acting to restore integrity in the judicial appointments process, with a return to a transparent, merit based process.
As many of you know, I am also a longstanding supporter of a federal judicial commission to deal with complaints against serving judges. The recent report of the Australian Law Reform Commission on judicial bias endorsed the need for a judicial commission.
And we will be legislating this year a powerful, independent and transparent National Anti-Corruption Commission.
How the Government will implement its vision
This will be a Government that will consult and listen to the views of legal professionals in the family law system, as well as families, children and young people.
Working together, we can restore the family law system so that it is accessible, safe, simpler to use, and delivers justice and fairness for all Australian families.
I will also ensure that work to improve the family law system builds on work across Government to support the wellbeing and safety of all families, and particularly children and young people.
This includes exploring the clear connections between family law and family safety with the work of the National Office for Child Safety, which recently came into my portfolio.
I also intend to work closely with the Family Law Council, and give its expert advice serious consideration
I thank the members of the Council for taking on this important role, in addition to their other demanding responsibilities.
I am honoured to once again be serving our country as Attorney-General.
As you can tell from my remarks, there is much work to be done.
I commend all of you for your ongoing work, dedication, and agility in responding to the challenges of recent years.
I thank you very much or inviting me to speak. I wish you a productive and engaging conference and look forward to working with you.