Child safety first in overhaul of family law

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.