Thursday, July 29, 2004

Custody overhaul to improve men's access to children

The Federal Government has announced an overhaul of family law arrangements, with plans to give men involved in marriage break-ups greater access to their children.

The changes also include new centres to provide compulsory mediation to separating couples.

The shake-up does not include a new families tribunal to hear custody cases, which was the key recommendation of a bipartisan parliamentary inquiry.

Many Coalition MPs backed the idea and Attorney-General Philip Ruddock concedes they will be disappointed.

"I think some will be," he said.

Mr Ruddock says that at $500 million, the tribunal idea was too expensive.

"Cost is relevant if you are looking at the resources that you want to put into helping to resolve disputes. We see the new family relationship model retaining most of the benefits of the tribunal proposal but it also overcomes its limitations," he said.

However, the Government will instead set up 65 "family relationships centres" around the country, with the first 15 to open within a year.

The Government would also ensure children would be legally required to spend time with both parents after a relationship breakdown.

"That would occur in all cases except those involving violence, child abuse and entrenched conflict," Mr Ruddock said.

The Government is also proposing a greater role for grandparents in custody disputes, a plan to make the Family Court less adversarial and to set up a taskforce to review the current child support payments scheme.

Lawyer support

The Law Council of Australia has welcomed the overhaul.

The council's family law chairman, Michael Foster, says the plan may prevent some couples being forced into the courts system.

"Only around 2 per cent of separating families ever need a judge or a magistrate to make a decision, but if we can avoid some of those people needing it in the future that's good," he said.

"For the 98 per cent who've managed to resolve their problems by agreement, then if we can make that quicker and easier, that has to be better for children."

The Australian Families Association has also cautiously welcomed the changes.

The association's Damien Tudehope says the changes will reduce the reliance of couples on lawyers.

He agrees the changes will keep more matters out of the courts.

"You've got to have the backstop of legal issues being resolved by courts," he said.

"If the parties can't resolve it through a relationship centre and hopefully staffed by people with appropriate expertise, then the number of people who would find it necessary to approach the courts would be minimised."

Relationships Australia says the relationships centres will help separating couples.

However, spokeswoman Anne Hollands says more effort should be put into stopping marriage break-downs in the first place.

"What we also need is increased funding for people much much earlier in the process to help them build stronger marriages in the first instance," she said.

"This is a great concern for us at the moment because there was no new funding in the budget for current services which are already struggling to meet demand."

Different priorities

Opposition Leader Mark Latham says the processes of the Family Court should be streamlined, to make it less traumatic and expensive for those coping with family breakdown.

Mark Latham said he will look at the Government's proposals, but he thinks the priorities should be entrenching the idea of shared responsibility for parenting and reforming the Family Court.

"If we can reduce the legal cost and processes, the time, the trauma and get people through the family court processes faster, then everyone's better off. If they get a fair judgement in a faster way, everyone's better off, you can get on with the rest of your life," he said.

By My Favourite Martian 29 July 04


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