Tuesday, 20 November 2018

 New funding for family law services to support women to recover financially after separation

Media release

Minister for Women
Minister for Jobs and Industrial Relations
The Hon Kelly O'Dwyer MP

Attorney-General
The Hon Christian Porter MP

Women will be the major beneficiaries of a major funding boost for family law services and initiatives to help women establish economic security after ending a relationship as part of the Coalition Government's Women's Economic Security Package, announced today.

"Women are more likely than men to experience financial hardship after separation, especially those women who have experienced family violence and they may not have the financial or other means to access services, lawyers, and the courts to resolve their family law disputes," Minister for Women, Kelly O'Dwyer said.

"The Coalition Government is delivering practical measures to help give women greater choices about their lives and to build financial security for themselves and their families. But we must particularly ensure that we assist those women and their children who may be experiencing family and domestic violence."

"This package of measures will assist and encourage women, including victims of family violence, to pursue safer, faster, and fairer parenting arrangements and property settlements after separation and will assist them to obtain economic security for themselves and their children," Attorney-General, Christian Porter said.

"Without appropriate supports and assistance, women may be more likely to agree to inequitable settlements to avoid the stress and cost of going to court, or to abandon their property claims altogether."

Victims of family violence will benefit from new ongoing funding for Legal Aid Commissions to support the ban on direct cross-examination by perpetrators of family violence. The funding, initially $7 million over three years, establishes the new Family Violence and Cross-examination of Parties Scheme.

Under this Scheme, Legal Aid Commissions will be funded to provide legal representation to parties subject to the ban on direct cross-examination in the Government's Family Law Amendment (Family Violence and Cross-examination of Parties) Bill 2018, which is currently before the Senate.

The Bill will protect victims of family violence in family law proceedings by banning direct cross-examination in certain circumstances, requiring that cross-examination be conducted by a legal representative.

Legal representation under the Scheme will be available to all parties who are subject to the ban on direct cross-examination – the usual legal aid means and merits tests will not apply.

"The Family Violence and Cross-Examination of Parties Scheme provides funding certainty for victims of family violence and ensures that their perpetrators will never be able to directly cross-examine them in future," the Attorney-General said.

The Government has worked closely with and thanks National Legal Aid for its important assistance to accurately cost the Scheme and has followed the information and advice from Legal Aid to ensure that it is well designed for victims of family violence and fully funded.

The number of cases and parties likely to utilise the Scheme was informed by recent research conducted the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS).

The AIFS research indicates that the Scheme would apply to up to an average of 134 matters per annum in the Family Court of Australia, the Federal Circuit Court of Australia and the Family Court of Western Australia.

The Government has allowed for a 20 per cent increase on these AIFS figures, to account for a possible increase in the number of victims of family violence willing to proceed to trial once the Scheme is in place.

As required under the Bill, the legislation will be reviewed after two years and will include an analysis of the costs of providing legal representation under the Scheme to inform its ongoing funding requirements.

As a result of this funding, the Government looks forward to Bill being considered and passed in the Senate in the final sitting fortnight this year to provide certainty to victims of family violence that their perpetrator will never be able to directly cross-examine them in Court.

Further measures being funded from 2019-20 under the Package include:

  • $31.8 million in ongoing funding to existing Commonwealth-funded specialist Domestic Violence Units and Health Justice Partnerships across Australia, with an expansion of these services to include financial advice, counselling and literacy services. This will ensure that these important and effective services can continue to provide legal and social support services to victims of family violence.
  • $50.4 million in new funding for family law property mediation services:
    • $13 million each year will be provided to the 65 Family Relationship Centres (FRCs) across Australia, on an ongoing basis, to help families reach agreement about splitting their property after separation and keep them out of court.
    • $10.3 million will be provided to Legal Aid Commissions for a two year trial of lawyer-assisted mediation in each state and territory. Using a more relaxed means and merit test, the trial will support families with asset pools of up to $500,000 (excluding debt) to resolve their property disputes with the help of experienced legal aid lawyers.
  • $5.9 million in new funding for the federal family courts to conduct a two year trial of simpler and faster court processes for resolving family law property cases with an asset pool of up to $500,000 (excluding debt). Additional court Registrars will be appointed to help separated couples prepare consent orders to be lodged with the court, and a short-form process will be used if the case needs to be decided by a judge.

An estimated 31,850 couples across Australia are expected to benefit from access to property mediation through FRCs and Legal Aid Commissions each year. The Government has been funding FRCs to support families to resolve disputes about children since 2006. This additional funding will allow FRCs to expand their mediation services to include property disputes as well.

"Property cases make up more than half of all new cases filed in the Family Court, and over a third of all new family law cases filed in the Federal Circuit Court, each year," Ms O'Dwyer said.

"Faster resolution of disputes through mediation and streamlined court processes will reduce the backlog of cases and delays for women and families."

Currently the same process applies whether the property pool in dispute is worth $10,000 or $100,000. This one-size-fits-all approach is adding to the time, cost and stress of many separating couples. The streamlined process being trialled under the Package will reduce legal fees, leaving more in the property pool to be distributed between the parties, and free up court time to deal with more complex family law matters.

By facilitating faster decisions for families, this new funding supports the Government's proposed structural reform of the family law courts.

The measures respond to recommendations of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs' report: A Better family law system to support and protect those affected by family violence, and proposals under consideration by the Australian Law Reform Commission's (ALRC) Review of the Family Law System.​​