The Family Court is to unveil landmark reforms aimed at identifying families most at risk from domestic violence, child abuse and drug and alcohol problems.
Parents battling over the care of their children will be asked to complete a confidential online questionnaire aimed at identifying whether their safety or welfare is at risk.
The risk screening will not be mandatory, to ensure that litigants intent on “gaming the system” cannot delay a case by refusing to complete it.
A litigant will not know if their partner has completed the assessment, or what information has been provided — which will not be used in court. Instead, it will be used by the court to triage families based on risk, and refer parents to appropriate support services.
High-risk families will be placed in a new expedited court list known as the “Evatt List”, after the first Family Court chief justice Elizabeth Evatt. Ten specialist judges, selected for their training in family violence, will preside over the cases.
Family Court Chief Justice Will Alstergren will announce the reforms, which will cost $13.5m over 2½ years, in a speech on the Gold Coast on Thursday.
The project will be trialled first in the Federal Circuit Court, which handles almost 90 per cent of family law disputes — starting in Adelaide on Monday, then Brisbane and Parramatta, in Sydney’s west, in January. It will be in the Family Court next year.
Chief Justice Alstergren will say the level of family violence was a “disgrace”. “We as a community cannot accept the number of deaths every week, month or year, or the number of people scarred for life physically, or mentally. For too long, the process of separation and divorce has been viewed largely as a legal issue. But we know it is much broader than that.”
Family Court registrar Lisa O’Neill told The Australian the aim was to move away from a system “often quite distressing and difficult for litigants” to a more positive and helpful process. The online system would be protected by “bank-style” security, she said.
“We want people to feel they can go and get help for their underlying issues without the fear it will be used against them,” Ms O’Neill said.
She said judges would still test any allegations of violence or abuse made in court. “If you do end up on the Evatt List, it’s not determinative of the outcome. Judges will still make a decision based on the evidence,” she said.
“One of the complaints by dads is that … there can be a really long time where they’re not seeing their children and this will deal with that because these cases are going to be prioritised.”
Ms O’Neill, who has driven the project, met with leading psychologists and researchers to help design the system, and examined initiatives that had operated successfully in overseas courts.