A Personal Response to the Latest Family Law Inquiry

October 28, 2019

The following blog is an opinion piece written by our STOP Domestic Violence Conference Ambassador, Liana Papoutsis.

My name is Liana Papoutsis. I am a survivor of horrific family violence and a survivor of being re-traumatised whilst navigating the family law system. I am also a member of the first ever Victim Survivors’ Advisory Council (VSAC) in Victoria, the first of its kind in Australia. Please find below my response to the announcement of the latest family law inquiry.

In March of this year we heard Prime Minister Scott Morrison emphatically state that,

“A culture of disrespect towards women is a precursor to violence, and anyone who doesn’t see that is kidding themselves.”

Prime Minister (PM) Scott Morrison went on to let us know that family violence is a matter of national security and announced a federal funding package to keep children & women safe. PM Morrison reassured Australia that his government was fully engaged in working together to fight violence against women as according to him, ‘it must stop’.

Of course, no-one with lived experience of family violence or advocate to stop family violence would have disagreed with Morrison’s sentiments, yet six months later in September of this year we found ourselves stunned as those words uttered in March rang empty and worthless. It is utterly incomprehensible that, in September another family law inquiry was announced; an announcement by the country’s Prime Minister, which has brought with it a myriad of problems.

How does a peak body for those of lived experience of family violence and all its associated matters, such as VSAC, take at face value the Prime Minister’s March statements? The same Prime Minister made the unnecessary decision for a further family law inquiry to be held and co-chaired by a woman, Senator Pauline Hanson of One Nation, who is unapologetically tethered to a perilous discourse that family violence against women is fabricated.

VSAC cannot reconcile these events. No advocate or person with lived experience can as the Prime Minister’s March and September positions are incompatible. A genuine attempt to challenge violence against women and children and look at family law experiences within a family violence context would have at least begun to have looked at the 60 recommendations from the Australian Law Reform Commission’s (ALRC) review.

For those with lived experience and advocates on the front line, the Prime Minister’s earlier expression pertaining to family violence to today’s worrying one is really frightening.

The ALRC tendered 60 recommendations to government in April of this year as part of its comprehensive review of Australia’s family law system, a review which was commissioned by the Coalition in 2017. At this point in time, the Hon. Chris Porter, Australia’s Attorney General and his staff are still working on the government’s response.

We have had two recent federal inquiries into family law which have provided over 90 recommendations to the federal government. None of these have been implemented. The new inquiry, announced astoundingly by the Prime Minister in September and headed by conservative Christian MP Kevin Andrews and One Nation Senator Pauline Hanson, will have one year to peruse issues such as child support, concerns including the onus of proof required to gain an apprehended violence order, the cost of the court process and claims of false evidence of family violence being used against former partners. It is not a secret to anyone in the Coalition that this latest inquiry comes due to years of pressure from Senator Hanson to revamp the family law system.

And herein lie a litany of protracted problems. Senator Pauline Hanson has made outrageous remarks that women lie in family law court in order to get the children. This was the Senator’s defence in claiming that a further law inquiry was necessary, that women blatantly lie in order to obtain primary care or sole responsibility of the children.

Senator Hanson’s claims unsurprisingly caused an uproar when she claimed women lied about family violence to gain an advantage in family courts. The Senator’s comments have been disputed by evidence and statistics which exemplify that just three per cent of fathers who appear before the Family Court are refused total access to their children.

In an interview on ABC’s Radio National recently, Senator Hanson said she was forever hearing of “too many cases” where “parents are using domestic violence to stop the other parent from seeing their children”.  Asked to clarify if she was saying mothers were going into the Family Court fabricating accusations of family violence, the One Nation leader replied, “I am”.

Senator Hanson was asked numerous times by the host to provide evidence for her claims with the One Nation leader replying that people phoned her office with similar stories “on a weekly, if not daily basis sometimes”. She added, “I’m sick of hearing about this gender bias. You get rid of the gender and you treat everyone equally.”

We know that violence against women and children across Australia is an epidemic. We know that on average, one woman a week is murdered by a current or former partner. At the end of September and start of October five women were murdered in seven days. In every instance the person charged was known to the woman. How is this not a gendered crime?

Women’s Legal Services Australia, which represents more than a dozen women’s legal services around the country, has weighed in on this issue and has advocated for family law courts to strengthen their response to family violence and provide effective legal help for disadvantaged clients.

It has also asked courts to ensure family law professionals understand family violence, to increase access to safe, alternative dispute resolution and identify the information gaps between child protection, family violence and family law systems.

We wish to see reform that prioritises the safety of children. The evidence tells us that more than 70 per cent of families that enter the legal system come within a family violence context and that this alone demands a high level of expertise to deal with all the arising issues.  It is not merely enough for family law court appointed family report writers to observe that, ‘the child gave the father a hug so obviously there’s no fear there’. It shows no understanding of coercion within a family.’

Whilst we now begrudgingly accept this latest inquiry, we strongly urge that the federal government address the recommendations from the previous two inquiries, by the House of Representative and the ALRC respectively. There have been two inquiries over the past three years, and none of the combined 90 recommendations have been acknowledged, let alone implemented.

It has been a further disappointment to hear, the federal Minister for Women, Marise Payne defend the government’s controversial decision to hold a parliamentary inquiry into family law, saying that parliament was “entitled” to inquire into the family law system.

Prime Minister Morrison went on to say that relationship breakdown had a “devastating impact” on parents and children. He said the Family Court and child support processes can “add greater difficulty”.  “We want to look to see whether there are ways where we can improve how that situation works.” At no time did our PM reference the dynamics of family violence and how these play out in a family law context often with devastating effects, such as the killing of children by their fathers on access visits or the ongoing family violence committed by perpetrators via the children to the mother or to the children themselves. As things stand now, we understand children are forced into care arrangements with parents who are abusive, and that one in three kids report feeling ‘not at all safe’ in post-separation care arrangements ordered by family law judges.

We feel that it is undeniably unacceptable that politicians such as Senator Hanson lead parliamentary investigations such as this when they have their own glaring political agendas.

Collectively, campaigners against family violence are frustrated and offended by the inquiry as it is pushing a narrative that questions the reality of family violence. It is unnecessary and unacceptable to have yet another inquiry into the family law system. In a show of unity, over one hundred family violence organisations released a statement, saying they are “alarmed that it is proceeding against the unanimous advice of experts in the domestic and family violence sector”.

As those who have lived experience of family violence and having navigated what is a broken and perilous family law system, we understand the failures, we see that women and in particular, children keep being placed in danger by a system that knows no better. Furthermore, with Senator Hanson’s contentions we have already seen victim blaming, shaming and denial of family violence take on a hazardous trajectory in the public realm.

As survivors we are often not heard. In the context of our family law experiences we have certainly not been heard. Hearing the motion to stop the inquiry be defeated further reaffirms how distressing the rise of this inquiry has been for those whose priority is to keep children safe and whose distressing stories of family violence are further open to the risk of minimisation.

We know what needs to happen, many advocates on the front line do, however, our views at the federal level are disrespected and given no space. There is a family violence epidemic in this country which affects a substantial part of the population and yet the voices that matter are dismissed. We need to see comprehensive risk assessments where family violence is involved, we need to have an information sharing scheme between the  family courts and state courts, we need to make sure that families in court are given proper support, we must give first priority to high risk cases and finally we need to make sure that everyone in the decision making process is adequately trained in the dynamics of family violence. This is common sense, safety should be the foundation of all which occurs in family court.

All this is disastrous enough in itself but when Senator Pauline Hanson is provided a stage to minimise and blame victims and disperse misinformation the situation is untenable and must be confronted.

As a survivor wrote to the Prime Minister in The Guardian:

“She has made it clear that she believes that women like me routinely lie about domestic violence. I can assure you, prime minister, that I have not lied, and I am genuinely distressed by Hanson’s comments.

I am fearful that my abuser will take confidence from Hanson’s rhetoric and that I will be even less safe than I was before she so publicly called me, and other women like me, a liar.

I assure you that I want nothing more or less than to feel and be safe.”

The author of that letter is so scared of her ex-husband that she keeps a notebook marked ‘for the coroner’.

As mentioned earlier, the Prime Minister said in March of this year, “a culture of disrespect towards women is a precursor to violence”. What do we do then with a government which dismisses advocates, professionals and survivors and then places Senator Pauline Hanson in a position of power given her well known agenda? It is far too difficult to see how this latest family law inquiry can be objective given Senator Hanson’s public statements that women lie about family violence in family law in order to keep the children.

It is the ultimate act of disrespect, and we know where a culture of disrespect leads.  Morrison himself said it.

Anyone who doesn’t see that is kidding themselves.

Therefore, we need the federal government to move on with reforms that have been recommended by the earlier inquiries. We do not wish for Senator Hanson to silence women survivors because, according to her, she has had first-hand experience with the family courts as a wife, mother and grandmother and this apparently makes her an expert in all things family violence and family law.

As a woman with lived experience, this latest call for a family law inquiry has denigrated me as a survivor and as a protective single mum. No perpetrator should be provided with state-sanctioned encouragement to further disrespect women, no child should be left exposed and unprotected by a broken family law system and no-one individual, namely, Senator Pauline Hanson should wield such power whereby it is declared that women routinely lie about family violence.