Family Law Legislation Amendment (Family Violence) Bill 2011
Submission to Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs
by Prof. Patrick Parkinson, University of Sydney
There is now a very widespread view in the community that some family violence orders are sought for tactical or collateral reasons to do with family law disputes. People have become very cynical about them. A national survey conducted in 2009, with over 12,500 respondents, found that 49% of respondents agreed with the proposition that ‘women going through custody battles often make up or exaggerate claims of domestic violence in order to improve their case’, and only 28% disagreed. While it might be expected that men would be inclined to believe this, 42% of women did so as well.
The view that some family violence order applications are unjustified appears to be shared by state magistrates in New South Wales and Queensland. Hickey and Cumines in a survey of 68 NSW magistrates concerning apprehended violence orders (AVOs) found that 90% agreed that some AVOs were sought as a tactic to aid their case in order to deprive a former partner of contact with the children. About a third of those who thought AVOs were used tactically indicated that it did not occur ‘often’, but one in six believed it occurred ‘all the time’. A similar survey of 38 Queensland magistrates found that 74% agreed with the proposition that protection orders are used in Family Court proceedings as a tactic to aid a parent’s case and to deprive their partner of contact with their children.
In research that our research team recently published on the views of 40 family lawyers in NSW, almost all solicitors thought that tactical applications for AVOs occurred, with the majority considering it happened often. In another study based upon interviews with 181 parents who have been involved in family law disputes, we found a strong perception from respondents to family violence orders (both women and men) that their former partners sought a family violence order in order to help win their family law case. This is a quote from one of the women in our study. Her former husband, who we also interviewed, sought an apprehended violence order (AVO) to keep her away from the house after she had left it. She said this:
I thought this is ridiculous. What’s he giving me an AVO for? I haven’t done anything to him. I haven’t hit him, kicked him. We never had any violence in our marriage. Why have I got an AVO? And apparently the AVO was ... you can put an AVO on someone and say that they’re violent, and the only way you can get a child off their mother is because they’re violent. And that’s why I think he gave me the AVO.
The belief that family violence orders are a weapon in the war between parents is fuelled by the fact that judges are required under the Family Law Act to consider such family violence orders in determining the best interests of the child. The proposed clause in this Bill takes the law back to what it was before 2006, without any explanation for why Parliament should reverse its previous decision at least to limit the provision. It really doesn’t matter whether this belief that family violence orders are used tactically is true or not. The fact is that the perception is out there and it is held by state magistrates and family lawyers, as well as the wider community. The retention of this provision in the Family Law Act simply fuels the suspicion that family violence orders are being misused. This is damaging to the credibility of the family violence order system and the courts.
The second reason why the requirement to consider family violence orders ought to be removed is that this serves absolutely no purpose. Yes, the court needs to know about the existence of a current family violence order in order to consider how to frame its own orders (s.60CG), but that is dealt with by requiring people to inform the court of such orders (s.60CF). Why consider them again in deciding what is in the best interests of a child (s.60CC(3))? The court is already required to consider the history of violence. What does it add to require the court also to consider a family violence order? The impression given by the legislation is that these orders are somehow evidence that there has been violence. However, that is a misunderstanding.
Family violence orders have absolutely no evidential value in the vast majority of cases. This is because, in the vast majority of cases, they are consented to without admissions. The hearings in these uncontested cases are very brief indeed. Prof. Rosemary Hunter, in observations in Victoria in 1996–97, found that the median hearing time for each application was only about three minutes. Applications were typically dealt with in a bureaucratic manner, with magistrates being distant and emotionally disengaged. To the extent that applicants were asked to give oral evidence, they were typically asked to confirm the content of their written application, and very little exploration of the grounds for the application took place.
Dr Jane Wangmann, in a recent analysis of court files in NSW, reached finding very similar to Hunter’s. In her observations of AVO matters in 2006–7, she found, like Hunter, that cases were dealt with in three minutes or less. She also noted that the information provided in written complaints was brief and sometimes vague. It is hardly surprising, then, that judges in family law cases draw no inferences from the mere existence of a family violence order. This has been the clear view of family lawyers for the last 15 years. Indeed, in the research we recently published on the views of 40 family lawyers in NSW, none of the lawyers who responded to the question believed that judicial officers gave AVOs much consideration in determining parenting disputes. Judges, they indicate, want to evaluate the evidence of violence itself, not the fact that another court has made an order about it by consent and without admissions.
Download the full submission in PDF format by Prof. Parkinson: