On September 27, Attorney-General George Brandis commissioned the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) to undertake what he described as “the first comprehensive review of the family law system” since the commencement of the Family Law Act in January 1976.
The terms of reference are extremely wide-ranging. Producing a report by March 31, 2019, seems overly ambitious.
There has been universal support for such a review from key players in family law, as well as those more on the periphery such as politicians espousing party-dictated views or representing individual (usually aggrieved) constituents.
As much as such a review will serve a valuable purpose, it is important to remember that our family law system has not remained static for the last four decades. There have been numerous significant reforms not only to the statute itself, but to the operation of courts determining family law cases, and allied areas such as family dispute resolution and counselling.
The Family Law Act initially introduced several revolutionary changes. For example, it established the Family Court of Australia; introduced “no-fault” divorce; and totally revamped laws about determining children’s cases and property settlement.
It also set up a new system of alternative dispute resolution and established the Australian Institute of Family Studies (AIFS) as a dedicated research body, along with the Family Law Council (FLC) as a representative body to monitor and advise the federal government on operational and policy matters.
Since then, various aspects of our family law system have been examined and changed.
Further reading: No simple solution when families meet the law
Family law legislation has undergone significant expansion and reform. It now covers divorce, nullity, parental responsibilities and obligations in respect of all children, and children’s rights.
It covers de facto relationships (marriage is dealt with specifically by the Marriage Act), spousal maintenance, division of property binding financial agreements, and family violence. There are now two federal family law courts, but they are overburdened and have long waiting lists.
Researchers too have not been idle. For example, the 1980s and 1990s saw a plethora of reports by the ALRC about domestic violence (1986), matrimonial property (1987), contempt (1987), multiculturalism and family law (1991), justice for women (1994), and complex child contact cases (1995).
More recently, the ALRC has produced two substantial reports on family violence.
In addition, the AIFS, the FLC and the family law courts have each produced numerous reports on a wide range of areas including child protection, parenting arrangements post-separation, and family violence.Shutterstock
There have also been important bipartisan state and federal parliamentary inquiries, most notably the federal inquiry into child custody arrangements in the event of family separation. This in turn produced “Every picture tells a story” in 2003 and the parliamentary inquiry into how family law can better support and protect those affected by family violence in 2017.
All these resources reflect a rich but largely unconnected tapestry of information about our family law system, which the ALRC can use to assess how best to reform the system.
Yes, the ALRC review of the Australian family law system is most welcome. However, it need not waste precious time or resources to remind us, as Leo Tolstoy wrote in Anna Karenina, that “all happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.
Notwithstanding the wide terms of reference, some other areas merit attention. These include the use of “good” evidence-based social science in determining the best interests of children and crafting parenting orders.
Another area is access to justice. The high cost of legal representation and cuts to legal aid mean large numbers of self-represented litigants. Also there is the question of mandatory education for judges and legal professionals in areas such as family violence and child abuse, which comprise over half of the courts’ work loads.
We know that families are complex entities when intact. And it is equally complex and complicated catering to the needs of adults and children once those family structures break down.
It is hoped that at least as a preliminary task, the ALRC will traverse this vast archipelago of individual studies, reports and inquiries and produce one consolidated, cohesive and accessible resource base from which to conduct a well-informed, meaningful and far-reaching discourse and review.
Authors: Renata Alexander, Senior Lecturer in Law, Monash University