Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia launches major family law reform to improve safety and support for children

Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia

Today, the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (the Courts) officially launch their world-leading family violence and safety initiative known as Lighthouse.

GUEST SPEAKERS

  • The Hon Chief Justice Will Alstergren AO
  • The Hon Mark Dreyfus KC, MP
  • Ms Hayley Foster, CEO, Full Stop Australia
  • Ms Rosie Batty AO
  • Mr Lloyd and Mrs Sue Clarke
  • Mrs Danielle and Mr Rhys Carroll

The event will be livestreamed and published via the Courts’ YouTube Channel:

At the launch event held in Sydney on Monday morning, the Chief Justice of the Courts, the Hon Will Alstergren AO, said that the Courts’ priorities are to shine a light on the scourge of family violence, improve the outcome of matters involving family violence and other risks, and to keep children and vulnerable parties safe.

“Family Violence in our society is a national disgrace and has often gone under reported. Lighthouse focuses on the safety and support of children and vulnerable parties. This is done in two ways; firstly, through the early identification of safety risks at the very start of the proceedings, and secondly, by utilising the most effective and appropriate case management pathway tailored to meet the needs of each individual case, including a high risk court list with specially trained judges, registrars and staff. These new procedures also allow the Courts to make referrals to much needed support and health services, particularly for people at high risk.

“We are grateful to have in attendance here today, family members who have been devastatingly impacted by family violence. Ms Rosie Batty, Mr and Mrs Clarke, and Ms Danielle Carroll have all lost family members in tragic circumstances. We acknowledge those family members who are no longer with us, and all other victims of family violence.

“I welcome the Attorney-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, the Hon Mark Dreyfus KC, MP. The Government is to be commended for funding this initiative and prioritising the Courts’ aim to reduce family violence and other risks in our society. The funding, provided through the National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children, demonstrates a serious commitment to the prevention of family violence in Australia,” Chief Justice Alstergren said.

Statistics

Court data shows that major risk factors are alleged in the following proportions in parenting cases filed in our Courts:

  • Family violence – in 80% of matters;
  • Child abuse of risk of child abuse – in 70% of matters;
  • Mental health issues harming a child or putting a child at risk – in 58% of matters; and
  • Drug, alcohol or substance misuse harming a child or putting a child at risk – in 53% of matters;

and the data reveals that these cases do not just have one risk factor in them. In 66% of matters the parties disclosed four or more risk factors – a prevalence much higher than previously understood. In fact, almost 80% of all parenting cases filed last financial year were referred to State or Territory child welfare agencies due to the risks alleged.

Locations

The project was successfully piloted in the Courts’ Adelaide, Brisbane and Parramatta registries for the past two years, and from 28 November 2022, it has now been embedded into the Courts’ family law case management pathway and expanded to include Cairns, Canberra, Dandenong, Darwin, Hobart, Launceston, Melbourne, Newcastle, Rockhampton, Sydney, Townsville and Wollongong.

Funding

Government funding for the expansion of the Lighthouse provided for the equivalent to 71 family law positions including Senior Judicial Registrars, Judicial Registrars, Court Child Experts, Triage Counsellors and support staff for registrars and Court Child Experts. This equates to $54.9m in funding over the forward estimates, including $2.461m in capital.

Importantly, the Courts have also received culturally responsive support funding for staffing to support the expansion of Indigenous Family Liaison Officer roles in the Courts. This equates to $8.85m in funding over the forward estimates, providing funding from 1 July 2022, equivalent to 16 family law positions related to supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families in family law proceedings.

Additional quotes:

Mr Lloyd and Mrs Sue Clarke

At its heart, the Lighthouse project is an effort to treat each applicant to the court as an individual, not a number. It recognises that people who present themselves to the court seeking help are often vulnerable, frightened and uncertain of what their life is going to be. It recognises that they may be at risk of physical or mental harm.

And it puts in place a set of responses tailored to each individual case – instead of a one-size-fits-all model for court applicants. It applies the right level of urgency for every case, and assigns specialist Judges and court officers to meet the individual needs of applicants.

This is such a radical departure from the way Family Court matters have traditionally been managed, and one that we are certain will make the process better and safer for all involved.

Ms Rosie Batty

The expansion of the Lighthouse project will ensure that victims of family violence are provided the opportunity at the beginning of their journey into the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia system to receive effective risk screening, specialised case management and specialist wrap around services. This critical step will help to ensure that those at risk receive the appropriate level of support that they require. Rather than the court system continuing to be a vehicle to re-traumatise victims of family violence, it has the potential to change the trajectory of people’s lives and enable them to move forward towards a life free from violence.

Mrs Danielle Carroll

After the sudden and tragic death of my sister, we had to get urgent court orders so we could take care of her children. With the help of Dr Jacoba Brasch, who is now a family court judge, we were able to access the court quickly, through the Lighthouse project.

The Lighthouse initiative will be invaluable to vulnerable families needing immediate access to services such as doctors, schooling, therapy services and others that my family also needed. Knowing you have a great team of lawyers on board to help, followed by a quick responding court system takes so much stress out of the process.

Ms Hayley Foster, CEO, Full Stop Australia

Most family law matters that reach courts involve serious allegations of family violence and abuse, so it is essential that we have a systematic approach for identifying and assessing risk and managing safety. The expansion of the Lighthouse Pilot and Evatt List will mean families separating in the context of violence and abuse, no matter where they live, will have access to a safer pathway and more support to live a life free from violence.

Ms Philippa Davis, Principal Solicitor, Women’s Legal Service NSW

We welcome the expansion of the Lighthouse initiative in the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia. The Court’s recent data confirms the concerns women’s legal services have been raising for many years – that family violence is drastically underreported. The innovative Lighthouse Project is being expanded to 15 family law registries across Australia. The initiative highlights the importance of effective risk screening and assessment processes and specialised case management for family law matters involving family violence. It is important all survivors of family violence and their children can have safe processes and a focus on safe outcomes in family law. Specialist wrap around legal and other services are also essential.

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