Caroline Overington | July 24, 2009
FEDERAL Attorney-General Robert McClelland has pledged to make changes to the Howard government's contentious shared parenting laws - and to the entire family law system - to ensure the safety of children after divorce.
In a speech due to be delivered today, Mr McClelland will cite the case of Darcey Freeman, the little girl thrown from Melbourne's West Gate Bridge, allegedly by her father during a custody dispute, as a reason for the review.
Darcey's father, Arthur Freeman, faces a murder charge for allegedly dropping his daughter over the bridge in January, a day after coming to an agreement with his ex-wife about custody of their three children.
Members of Darcey's family have previously said they tried to warn authorities about their fears for the safety of the Freeman children, saying the judicial system failed them.
Mr McClelland has appointed former Family Court judge Richard Chisholm to conduct the review of the family law system, particularly in the context of family violence.
His decision to intervene comes after an avalanche of complaints about the way the family law system is working, particularly in relation to the custody of children.
The Australian understands several prominent women from Kevin Rudd's front bench, including Minister for the Status of Women Tanya Plibersek and Health Minister Nicola Roxon, are concerned about the way family law is operating.
There are concerns children are being forced into damaging shared parenting arrangements because of shared parenting laws introduced by the Howard government in 2006. The laws require the Family Court to presume the best interests of a child are served by a meaningful relationship with both parents after divorce.
Men's groups say the laws are working as they should but women's groups say the laws force mothers into ongoing relationships with violent ex-partners.
An advance copy of Mr McClelland's speech, provided to The Australian, says: "There will always be differing perspectives about how our family law system should function. That's especially true for those individuals and groups directly affected by the laws and processes."
But he says the Rudd government's priority is the safety and wellbeing of children, which may not always mean equal, or a lot of, time with both parents.
Mr McClelland's review is in addition to a review of the shared parenting laws that was built into the legislation when it was passed in 2006. That review, by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, is due to report in December. Mr McClelland says he will "await the findings of the AIFS report before proposing legislative change to the shared parenting law".
But, he said, "if it becomes clear that current laws and practices may jeopardise the safety of families and children, we must work together to address these shortcomings".
"It is paramount that our family law system is capable of identifying and responding to violence."