There has been much media coverage recently of changes to Family Law from 7 June 2012 concerning family violence and abuse. What are the changes, and what do they mean? The focus of the changes is to prioritize the safety of children in parenting cases, to protect them from harm or risk of harm, in determining what is in their best interests. Unfortunately, it is alleged that one or both parents is violent or abusive in more than half of the parenting cases that come to Court. The changes most importantly update the definitions of family violence and child abuse to clearly set out the types of behaviour that are unacceptable. Most significantly, this now includes:
physical and emotional abuse, which now includes financial abuse; and
exposing children to family violence and abuse.
Obligations are not placed not only on judges, but also on lawyers, mediators, counsellors and family consultants, to act on such allegations, including reporting evidence of family violence and abuse. The changes do not affect cases where there is no risk of violence or abuse. Parenting arrangements will continue to be made which promote the right of children to have a meaningful relationship with both parents, where this is safe for the children. Courts will continue to apply the presumption that parents should have equal shared parental responsibility for their children, and that children should spend equal, or substantial and significant, time, with each of their parents – unless there is such a risk. Courts retain the power to award costs against a parent who knowingly makes false statements to the Court. In addition, it remains a criminal offense to knowingly make a false statement during court proceedings.