THE Gillard Government has unveiled radical changes to family law that redefine domestic violence, place greater weight on child safety and could weaken the Howard government’s shared parenting laws.
The changes, which are directed at cases involving abusive parents, elevate the safety of children to the top priority in custody disputes.
Whenever a court considers that this goal is in conflict with the right of a child to have a relationship with both parents, it will be required to give greater weight to child safety.
The change is contained in draft legislation released for discussion yesterday by Attorney-General Robert McClelland.
The proposed changes to the Family Law Act come after Labor MPs, particularly women, raised concerns that the Howard Government laws had gone too far and were hurting vulnerable children.
The Howard Government introduced changes in 2006 that placed greater emphasis on shared parenting when couples divorced. A report by former Family Court judge Richard Chisholm found that many people wrongly believed this meant separated fathers were automatically entitled to equal custody of their children.
Under the planned changes to the Family Law Act, the government proposes to ease the evidentiary burden on those seeking to show that a child faces a risk of violence.
Family violence will be redefined to recognise that it can take the form of physical assaults, harassment, emotional manipulation, financial abuse and threatening behaviour.
The changes expand the definition of family violence beyond it being conduct – actual or threatened – that causes a member of a person’s family to reasonably fear or be apprehensive about their wellbeing or safety.
The new definition includes a long list of matters including behaviour that torments, intimidates, or harasses a family member. That effect could be caused by repeated derogatory taunts or racial taunts, or intentionally causing death or injury to an animal or damaging property.
Family violence will also include unreasonably controlling, dominating or deceiving a family member. This could be brought about by denying a family member financial autonomy or preventing a family member from making or keeping connections with family, friends or culture.
The proposed changes were welcomed last night by former Family Court chief judge Alastair Nicholson, who said they were long overdue.