The Inquiry into the Family Law System is a poorly disguised trojan horse

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In response to the inquiry announced this week into Australia’s Family Law System, the team at the Women’s Research, Advocacy and Policy (WRAP) Centre at Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand has pulled together some of the concerns expressed by advocates for women’s and children’s safety.

While parliamentary inquiries often garner media attention, the flurry that met the announcement this week of a lengthy and comprehensive Inquiry into Australia’s Family Law System was perhaps without precedent. Domestic and family violence services, community legal services, researchers and advocates for women’s equality voiced their united opposition to the Inquiry.

On the surface this may seem surprising, considering women often have extremely poor experiences of both the family law system and child support system (child support is covered under one of the Terms of Reference). However, the announcement that Senator Pauline Hanson was the force behind the Inquiry, and would be co-chairing it, has elated men’s rights activists and caused even the Financial Review to question the impartiality of the Inquiry. Senator Hanson made her viewpoint clear when she implied that women lie about experiencing domestic violence in order to retain custody of their children. Furthermore, the Inquiry has been announced almost directly on the heels of the Australian Law Reform Commission’s review into the same, following a reference from the Federal Attorney-General in May 2017. To date there has been no government response to the ALRC report or its 60 recommendations.

It doesn’t take much investigating to realise that this inquiry is not interested in fixing the problems women and children experience when navigating the Family Court and Child Support systems.  Photo credit: pxhere .

It doesn’t take much investigating to realise that this inquiry is not interested in fixing the problems women and children experience when navigating the Family Court and Child Support systems. Photo credit: pxhere.

The Australian Women Against Violence Alliance (AWAVA), the peak body for women’s domestic and family violence service agencies, has called for the inquiry to be abandoned. In a public statement, Program Manager Dr Merrindahl Andrew expresses grave concern for the potential damage such an inquiry may have on the safety of women and children:  

“We have had enough inquiries. There are steps the Government can take right now to make the family law system safer for women and children. Safety is what we should be focused on now, not setting up a platform for those who choose not to believe victims/survivors. It is completely inappropriate for a parliamentary inquiry to be co-chaired by someone who has openly stated her disbelief in these experiences of violence – especially when this violence has been thoroughly documented by women’s own voices as well as extensive academic and policy research.”

Domestic Violence Victoria also opposes the Inquiry. In a public statement, they advocate for the current body of recommendations to be examined through a consultative process with the family and domestic violence sector. They state:

“Utmost in our concerns is that an unnecessary Inquiry would go ahead led by government representatives who hold uninformed opinions on the complexities of the family law system and family violence, and the harmful impacts the family law system has on victim-survivors of family violence, particularly women and children.”

Hayley Foster of Women’s Safety NSW echoes these concerns. Following meetings with the Offices of the Prime Minister, the Attorney-General and the Minister for Women, she said:

“After… sharing real-life stories of women and children devasted by a system which failed to protect them, this decision today is like a slap in the face. We told them we do not want this inquiry. We told them we want action on urgent recommendations now. Once again, however, it seems women and children experiencing terror in their own homes at the hands of the men who are supposed to love them will go unheard and unheeded.”

Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand has added their support to sector calls to stop this inquiry. CEO Stella Avramopoulos has stated:

“A Parliamentary inquiry into the system is unnecessary and distracts from the real issues at hand that need addressing now. The Federal Government has all the evidence it needs to make overdue reforms to the system, and it should not be side-tracked by spurious claims that diminish the legitimate experiences of women and children.”

The Women’s Research, Advocacy and Policy (WRAP) Centre finds the views expressed by Senator Hanson to be contrary to the very strong body of evidence which indicates that women are much more likely to experience intimate partner violence than men are, and that women are much more likely to under-report violence than over-report it. Jess Hill, the author of the investigative book See What You Made me do: Power, Control and Domestic Abuse, quoted a Canadian study which found men were more likely to lie about experiencing abuse than women were. Hill’s book also documents a number of disturbing cases where the lives of children were put in grave danger as a result of the 2006 reforms to Family Law. These include granting abusive men unsupervised visitation with their children, discrediting the experience of family violence experienced by mothers and putting children in harm’s way.

An alternative approach to this Inquiry would be to consider existing recommendations, such as those from the 2017 House of Representatives Inquiry into a better family law system to support and protect those affected by family violence, chaired by then Liberal MP Sarah Henderson, and evidence gathered over two years by the ALRC. It is unclear how another Inquiry will draw out any further meaningful evidence than what has been gathered. The time and money that will be spent on this Inquiry would be better diverted to tangible actions that protect the safety of women and children. The Fourth Action Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children was recently endorsed by COAG, recognising gender inequality at the core of violence against women and their children. The new Inquiry risks undermining this evidence-based approach, replacing it with an agenda seemingly formulated on a basis of anecdote.

The safety of women and children should be of paramount concern to government – this requires improved legal protections and a system that centres their safety and wellbeing. Our present legal system and child support system is currently far from fulfilling these basic human rights obligations, but the steps that are required to resolve this dissonance are already documented. Some have argued that the Inquiry is politically motivated. On face value it appears to have been designed to further marginalise women’s and children’s experiences of violence; a consequence may be an increased risk of abuse or the facilitation of further abuse – both within the child support system and in the family court setting. At the very least the discussion to date appears to have emboldened those who are inclined to disbelieve women. This is an old and dangerous narrative which belongs in the past.  

 Compiled and written by Sarah Squire (@SquireSarah), Susan Maury (@SusanMaury) and Laura Vidal (@LauraEmilyVidal) of the Women’s Research, Advocacy and Policy (WRAP) Centre (@GoodAdvocacy) at Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand (@GoodShepANZ).

This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens. View our other policy analysis pieces here.