The system needs to be overhauled – but not by Pauline Hanson who seems to be driven by vengeance on behalf of her son.
I’ve lost count of the number of victimised parents, usually mothers, who’ve told me they are terrified to leave their violent relationships because they know that if they get drawn into the family law system, they cannot guarantee their children’s safety. They’re afraid their children will be at greater risk if they leave than if they stay.
When I first started hearing these stories I didn’t believe they were part of a pattern. Everyone knows someone who’s had a shitty time in the family law system. Besides, I knew that this system was actually biased against fathers, not mothers. I believed then, like 43% of Australians, that vindictive mothers routinely lobbed abuse allegations at their ex-husbands to stop them seeing their children.
But then I started reading their court documents and the research.
In 2001, a joint study by the family court and the University of Sydney found that the family law system had “tilted more and more against women, either by accident or design”. Even where serious violence had been proven, it found, supervised contact with abusive fathers was becoming much more common.
In 2006, despite this noted tilt against women, and after three years of what then-legal associate Waleed Aly described as “an incessant and often intimidatory campaign by father’s rights groups”, the Howard government introduced new reforms to the Family Law Act. They were, on the face of it, reasonable – judges should apply a presumption of shared parental responsibility unless violence or abuse was an issue. But there was a catch: if a parent alleged abuse, they could be labelled a “hostile parent”, unwilling to support shared parenting.
The punishment for hostile parents could be extreme: they not only ran the risk of losing custody of their children, they could be blocked from seeing or even speaking to them for months.
In 2007, Rae Kaspiew (now at the Australian Institute of Family Studies) found there were very limited circumstances in which a mother could challenge ongoing paternal involvement, “except in cases where the evidence of severe violence was clear-cut”. In his report, former family court judge Richard Chisholm called this trap “the victim’s dilemma”, a position later articulated by former attorney general Robert McLelland: “Do I report family violence to the court and risk losing my children, or should I stay silent?”
In 2012, after three research studies found that victims of abuse were not being protected in the family law system, then-attorney general Nicola Roxon announced another set of reforms to the Family Law Act – essentially, attempting to undo the harm done by the Howard reforms.