MARK COLVIN: Surveys differ wildly on the percentage of men who falsely believe they’re the father of a child.

A UK study put it at 30 per cent. Melbourne’s Swinburne University said it was just one per cent.

But what’s clear is that with DNA testing becoming more accessible, paternity is also getting easier to identify.

And the recent reform of child support laws has also empowered men. In fact there’s been a spate of cases where women have been forced to pay back child support to men they wrongly identified as the father.

Nicola Fell reports.

NICOLA FELL: So far 18 men cleared by DNA testing have made use of changes to the Family Act and clawed back funds paid as child support.

Sue Price from the Men’s Rights Agency explains.

SUE PRICE: There are quite a lot of cases of men seeking paternity and we get some cases of women seeking paternity as well, they want to know they are pointing the finger at the right person, so to speak.

In 2004, I know, there were about 3,000 paternity tests and out of those about 600 men found they weren’t the father of the child they thought they were. So it’s a growing problem.

One particular case comes to mind where a father had four children in total – two turned out not to be his but belonging to the neighbour over the road.

NICOLA FELL: The Australian courts have issued orders for over $170,000 to be returned by the mothers. Hugh Macken from the New South Wales Law Society

HUGH MACKEN: Under the Family Law Act, the court can make orders associated with what they call parentage testing orders. This allows the courts to make orders in respect to the genetic testing of children to see if they are children of the marriage.

Under the Child Support Assessment Act, specifically Section 143, if an amount of child support is paid by a person to another person then that can be recovered if it turns out that this person is not the parent of the child.

It can probably run into the hundreds of cases but when you consider that there are millions of parenting relationships in Australia it is an infinitesimally small percentage but it is a significant number of cases.

NICOLA FELL: The reform also allows the judge to still demand child support if the man is not the biological father but has played a significant parenting role.

Kerry Davies from the Council of Single Mothers and their Children.

KERRY DAVIES: There’s 18 men who have suffered this but there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of families where child support is not paid or owing.

In Australia we’ve got a child support debt, and that’s child support that is owed and it’s growing at the rate of $50-million a year, and it is currently at over $1-billion outstanding.

So really that is the issue and the Child Support Agency says the rate of misattributed paternity is between one to three per cent of the population and that’s compared to 25 per cent of families which are headed by single mothers.

And, as I said, there’s a lot of child support that children are not getting compared to, really a minimal amount that perhaps has been misattributed and paid wrongly.

NICOLA FELL: For men considering a paternity test it may be best to do it soon, as the laws governing DNA look set to change. The Government is currently considering recommendations from the Australian Law Reform Commission, as David Weisbrot explains

DAVID WEISBROT: We became concerned about the ease of obtaining a DNA sample from an individual, it can be just some hair or saliva or blood or tissue sample and then increasingly easy to test it.

Labs are available all over including on the net and the cost is coming way down. And we had incidences presented to us where employers serreptiously testing their workers, these are not necessarily in Australia but from around the world, private investigators, journalists, government officials without authority and so on.

So our recommendation is that if you submit someone else’s sample for DNA testing knowing that there’s no consent from the person concerned then you should be guilty of a criminal offence, maximum penalty of two years jail.

If one parent tested a child without the consent of the other parent if it’s a young child, plucked a hair sample and sent it off, then this could amount to the kind of offence I was talking about.

NICOLA FELL: But for Sue Price this proposal is discriminatory to men.

SUE PRICE: We think it seems to be a very difficult road to hoe to accuse a father, remember, he is supposed to be the father, of taking a DNA sample from his own child and having that tested.

Either one parent can make a decision about their children without having to consult the other. Same as a woman wanting an abortion, she can make that decision on her own.

So are we really going to say to a father that he can’t put a mouth swab in a child’s mouth and get a salvia sample?

NICOLA FELL: The Government has put out a discussion paper on this issue which is likely to go to parliament for debate by the middle of next year.

MARK COLVIN: Nicola Fell.