Leave family disputes to judges: Law Council calls for Brandis plan to be dumped

Law Council of Australia president Morry Bailes. Picture: Keryn Stevens
Law Council of Australia president Morry Bailes. Picture: Keryn Stevens

A proposal allowing ­social workers and other non-lawyers to ­resolve parenting disputes marks a “radical departure” from existing practices and should be abandoned, the Law Council says.

Council president Morry Bailes wants the federal government to scrap the $12.7 million initiative announced last year and instead direct funding to ­existing family law ser­vices.

“The Law Council and Family Law Section regard the making of decisions about matters such as where a child lives, with whom a child spends time, and how a child communicates with a parent, let alone questions of parental responsibility, as each being matters that are and should ­remain within the remit of ­the ­judicial decision-making power of judges,” Mr Bailes will tell an inquiry today.

“The bill proposes a radical departure from the established position under Australian law.”

Former attorney-general ­George Brandis announced four-year funding to establish and operate parenting management hearings as a way of providing families with a fast, informal way to resolve disputes outside the adversarial court ­system. Panels made up of lawyers, social workers, psychologist, drug and alcohol counsellors and other experts would be given powers to rule where a child lives, who is to have parental ­responsibility, and other matters relating to children. Parents would come before the panel only if they consent. Only one member of the panel will usually decide each case. The Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee is ­inquiring into the proposed laws to set up the panels.

Mr Bailes will tell the inquiry that the government “could achieve a far better outcome both for children and parents ­involved in family law disputes and for Australian taxpayers generally” by investing the $12.7m in extra resources for the family courts, and for counselling and support services such as contact centres.

“Funding of this magnitude could make a significant improvement to the capacity of the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court to triage and hear cases more quickly,” he will say.

The Law Council is concerned about protecting the interests of victims of family violence, ­because parties would not have legal representation.