Cuts to send family battles back to court
- From: The Australian
- May 13, 2010
FAMILY relationship centres created by the Howard government to keep families out of courtrooms have had their funding slashed by $43.9 million, a move experts say could drive family disputes back into the courts.
Under changes outlined in the budget, families will have to pay for some counselling sessions that were previously free.
A spokesman for Attorney-General Robert McClelland last night confirmed the cuts to the Family Relationship Services program.
A means test will be applied to counselling services, forcing separating parents to pay for the service if, individually, one of them earns more than $50,000.
The measure was hidden in the detail of the budget papers and was not mentioned in the document that details cuts and increases to programs.
Mr McClelland's spokesman said total funding for the program would be just over $200m each year, while family dispute resolution services would get $90m a year. "It is appropriate for those who use FRC services to contribute to the cost of their provision if they are able to afford it," the spokesman said.
The means test will be introduced from July 1 next year.
Even with the means test, about two-thirds of clients would continue to receive up to three free hours of mediation.
"Separating families will continue to receive a range of free services and support from FRCs, including intake assessment and screening interviews, referral services, information sessions and facilities for children," the spokesman said.
Family relationship centres have been set up across the country to keep children out of courtrooms, to reduce the financial cost to government of family break-ups and battles in the Family Court, and to lessen the number of acrimonious disputes and custody battles over children.
The centres offer a full range of relationship advice, including pre-marriage counselling, information for separating couples, mediation to help parents gain access to children and advice and help for children, grandparents and other family members.
Families in dispute are generally obliged to try to mediate before commencing proceedings in the Family Court. Centre clients now receive three hours of mediation free at 65 FRCs throughout Australia.
If a session runs longer than three hours, the FRC may charge a fee of $25 to $100 per person per hour for the extra hours.
The new means test will lead to a fee of $30 per hour for the second and third hours of mediation for those earning more than $50,000.
All clients will continue to receive the first hour of mediation free and those who earn less than $50,000 or who receive commonwealth health and social security benefits will continue to receive three hours of free mediation.
Relationships Australia vice-president Anne Hollonds, who runs about half of Australia's 65 centres, said the sector was baffled by the cuts, which would hurt families
"You can't resolve disputes in an hour," she said.
Ms Hollonds said the counselling sessions helped domestic violence victims as well as helping people going through separation.
"We are baffled that there would be cuts to a program that has been proven to be successful," she said.
Catholic Social Services Australia executive director Frank Quinlan said the government was abandoning a commitment to help families work through their problems without courts and lawyers.
"It looks like a shift from talking through problems to solving problems through legal dispute," Mr Quinlan said.
Family Relationship Services Australia executive director Samantha Page said no cuts were warranted.
"The major three-year study, 'Evaluation of the 2006 Family Law Reforms', undertaken by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, provided solid evidence that community-based services helped families," Ms Page said.
That study involved 28,000 people who said the support services they received helped them to manage in a more positive way the conflict and distress of separation where children are involved.
"By reducing current investment and planning even more cuts in the future, this government is walking away from family law reforms and acting contrary to its own evidence base," she said.