Today’s Editorial In the Australian

It’s rarely easy or simple for children when parents separate or divorce, especially when conflicts, sometimes bitter, carry over into the Family Court. In his efforts to streamline and simplify court processes for separating families, Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus would be prudent to factor in concerns about shared parenting made in submissions about the government’s upcoming Family Law Amendment Bill. The government wants to make the system more accessible, simpler to use and safer for victims of family violence.

Richard Chisholm, who served as a Family Court judge from 1993 to 2004, has warned that Labor’s push to abolish the presumption of shared parenting should not inadvertently take Australia back to a time when mothers were granted primacy in court battles, taking on childcare responsibilities most of the time, with fathers seeing their children at weekends.

Family law expert Patrick Parkinson says the proposed changes strip almost every reference to the importance of both parents in their children’s lives and repeal provisions about how that should affect parenting arrangements after separations. Professor Parkinson was a key adviser to the Howard government when it amended the Family Law Act in 2006 after strong lobbying from men’s groups for greater involvement for fathers.

While supporting many aspects of the legislation, Professor Parkinson wrote in his submission that deletions from the current act suggest the government no longer believes it is important to “ensure that children have the benefit of both of their parents having a meaningful involvement in their lives, to the maximum extent consistent with the child’s best interests”. Provisions also had been deleted, he said, that provided “that children have the right to know and be cared for by both their parents” and that they “have a right to spend time” regularly and communicate with both their parents and other people significant to their care, welfare and development such as grandparents and other relatives.

As Jess Malcolm reports, the government is seeking to abolish the presumption of shared parenting in court disputes. Based on his long experience in the Family Court, Professor Chisholm argues that part of the legislation should be reworded to direct a court to “presume that it is in the child’s best interests that both parents continue to have parental responsibility, unless it considers that this would not be in the child’s best interests in the circumstances of the case”.

Professor Parkinson acknowledges that a few women’s and domestic violence groups will applaud the changes. However, the reality is complex, he points out, with research showing that more fathers than mothers in shared-care arrangements held concerns for their children’s safety. The issues warrant thorough community debate.