A federal parliamentary inquiry has recommended a wide-ranging shake-up of Australia’s family law, including an overhaul of child custody payments.
The House of Representatives Family and Community Affairs Committee has recommended that in family breakdown situations, a 50-50 share of a child’s custody should be the “standard objective” but says that aim should not be enshrined in law.
Prime Minister John Howard set up the joint parliamentary committee in June, asking it to investigate Australia’s child custody system and “in particular, whether there should be a presumption that children will spend equal time with each parent and if so, in what circumstances such a presumption could be rebutted”.
“We have concluded that the goal for the majority of families should be one of equality of care and responsibility, along with substantially shared parenting time,” the report says. “They should start with an expectation of equal care.
“However, the committee does not support forcing this outcome in potentially inappropriate circumstances by legislating a presumption (rebuttable or not) that children will spend equal time with each parent.
“Rather the committee agrees that, all things considered, each parent should have an equal say on where the child or children reside. Wherever possible, an equal amount of parenting time should be the standard objective, taking into account individual circumstances.”
The committee recommends that in the first instance after a separation, there should be a “rebuttable presumption of equal shared parental responsibility”.
The committee says ‘shared parental responsibility’ does not necessarily mean ‘equal time residence’ with each parent.
“The committee recommends ‘shared parental responsibility’ be defined as involving a requirement that parents consult with one another before making decisions about major issues relevant to the care, welfare and development of children,” the report said.
The committee has recommended a new three-tier system be established to deal with child custody matters after a family breakdown, including a new entry point to provide information to parents.
The second tier would be a newly created Families Tribunal, which would decide on child custody disputes, taking on much of the role currently performed by the Family Court.
The new tribunal would “make binding orders about all aspects of parenting responsibility”, with accredited professionals in the family relationships field, including mediators and child psychologists, serving as decision makers.
The courts would serve as the third tier of the system but would have a “significantly reduced” role, limited to cases involving entrenched conflict, violence or abuse, and to reviewing some tribunal decisions.
The committee recommends that the current structure of courts dealing with family matters be simplified to create one federal court.
The committee has also recommended that the minimum child payment should increase from $5 to $10 a week.
It says any direct link between the amount of child support payments and the time children spend with each parent should be removed.
The committee also wants to see greater recognition of grandparents’ roles in many children’s lives.
The committee’s deputy chairwoman, Labor’s Julia Irwin, has issued a plea to the Government to accept the findings.
“I urge the Prime Minister and I urge the Government to have the courage to take on the recommendations that are before you today for the sake of those 1 million children, for the sake of the families and also for the grandparents,” she said.