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Family Law

National Family Law Conference 2016: How has family law in Australia changed, what is currently evolving, and what further changes are necessary?

By October 31, 2016No Comments

By Gianna Huesch

Our principal solicitor Cristina Huesch attended the National Family Law Conference 2016 held in Melbourne, topping up her knowledge of best practices and current issues in family law today.

Specific topics covered at this year’s conference included: Drugs and alcohol in parenting matters, defending or challenging a pre-nuptial agreement, how the definition of property in family law matters is shifting, divorce law reform through the decades and how this has impacted women in particular, and what the challenges are for family law moving forward. Speakers included family lawyers, magistrates, judges and chief justices, the attorney-general George Brandis and media personality Ita Buttrose.

Ita Buttrose addressed how divorce has changed in Australia since the 1970s, in parallel with the social changes brought about through women’s liberation. Divorce law reform was revolutionary when the Family Law Act was created in 1975. Until then, fault-only divorce existed, there was no support for single mothers and children were not discussed at all.  Ms Buttrose described her parents’ divorce in 1962, when matrimonial offences had to be proven: her mother had to organise a photographer to take compromising photographs of her husband with his secretary so that she could obtain her divorce in the Supreme Court; and her father was asked to resign on account of his divorce. Ms Buttrose’s noted that her own divorce in 1977 was very different under the current Act.

Also discussing the developments in family law over time, Chief Justice of the Family Court Diana Bryant in her speech reviewed the four decades since the Family Law Act was enacted, from the creation of the Family Court, to the introduction of the first family violence policy, to legislative changes including the introduction of the presumption of shared parental responsibility. She noted the critical issue today remains a funding one and discussed the lack of resourcing especially in relation to family violence. This was echoed by the chief judge of the Federal Circuit Court, John Pascoe, who in his speech reiterated the need for funding for more judicial officers.

Senator Brandis also outlined some of the major changes to the social and legal landscape today, including changes to family structure (for example, blended families, surrogacy and assisted reproductive technologies). He canvassed alternative dispute resolution processes including arbitration, and advances in post-order supports which assist families once orders are put in place. Mr Brandis avowed the Government’s focus on family violence and announced the release of The Law Council of Australia’s report on families with complex needs, outlining the interaction between the family law system and other facets to ensure safeguards for children. He also revealed the release of a new handbook, “Parenting Orders–What You Need to Know”, designed to help separating parents resolve parenting issues. While noting the increased complexity of litigious matters, however, Mr Brandis side‑stepped the issue of increased federal funding for judicial officers, family report writers and family violence specialists.

Apart from speeches giving overviews of the major changes in family law over the past few decades and the directions for future reform, several topics were discussed in more detail, including the subject of parental substance abuse, and changes in property affecting family law matters today.

One specific area of family law subject to enormous change right now is the concept of property. In an era of great technological change, the definition of property itself is expanding to incorporate modern assets like valuable apps, domain names, cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, crowdfunding, and even numbers of followers on social media. New property extends far beyond traditional concepts of real property, cash and superannuation. Even the way we retain property is changing—physical title deeds and share certificates, for example, are not always available. Not only that, but technological trends dictate great falls or spikes in value, with repercussions for the value of property and for family law property settlements.

The conference also explored best practices in relation to handling matters involving parents who abuse drugs or alcohol. Under family law, a child has the right to a meaningful relationship with both parents, but this is balanced against the need to protect the child from harm. Parents’ use of drugs and alcohol increases the risk of children being raised in situations where they may come to harm. The abuse of drugs and alcohol consumes parental resources of time, money and attention and the potential consequences for children are severe, ranging from physical and psychological harm to neglect to the “parentification” of children forced into an inverted parent/child relationship through their parent’s incapacity due to substance abuse. The conference provided further guidance for family lawyers on how to collaborate with courts, community groups and other legal practitioners when handling matters involving parental substance abuse.

Do you need assistance with a family law matter? Please contact Cristina Huesch or one of our experienced solicitors here at Alliance Family Law on (02) 6223 2400 to discuss how we can help you.

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