18 March 2004

The Chief Justice of the Family Court, Alastair Nicholson, today described family violence as the biggest single problem affecting family breakdown.

Launching the Court's new Family Violence Strategy in Sydney Chief Justice Nicholson said: "Statistically the figures are horrifying and it is hard to come to terms with Australian Institute of Family Studies research in 2000 indicating that 66 per cent of separating couples point to violence as a cause of marital breakdown, with 33 per cent of the couples describing the violence as serious."

"The Court's own analysis reveals that violence was a factor in 68 out of 91 judicially determined cases.

"The Family Law Act acknowledges the connection between family breakdown and violence and a number of its provisions refer to aspects of family violence and particularly to the court's responsibility to protect children from its consequences.

"But the figures only hint at the depth of pain and trauma that is being experienced by victims of family violence. It is a problem that is entrenched in a society that increasingly views violence as a means of tackling problems from road rage to a child who doesn't fit in at school.

"At the Family Court we are seeing the end result of a trail of violence and abuse that has sometimes gone on for years. The Court's role is to ensure that our mediation programs are sensitive to family violence issues and that our judicial decisions take into account cases where adults and children are subject to such abuse. Just as importantly we need to be prepared for the reality that violence can break out within and outside Court buildings.

"This means providing adequate security and implementing processes that protect clients and litigants who are at risk. It also means that people working at the Court, in whatever capacity, need to be sensitive to, and aware of, family violence issues".

Justice Nicholson said children suffered short and long-term consequences from exposure to violence and threats of violence, including higher levels of aggression and anxiety, lower self-esteem, and a greater incidence of behavioural problems.

"The impact on adults can be permanent and is also multifaceted. It can take the form of physical and psychological abuse and frequently inhibits the ability of victims to function in a number of ways.

"There is no simple solution to this very complex problem but by reviewing our existing family violence policy, and implementing a new strategy, the Court is doing its best to ensure that we approach the problem with clarity, sensitivity and decisiveness.

"This is an ongoing problem and the work we do in this area will need to be monitored to ensure that we adjust the strategy to meet any changing needs. Nor can we tackle family violence in isolation, it needs to be dealt with in a holistic way involving all elements of society including individuals, community groups, and all levels of Government."

Justice Nicholson added that the broad elements of a multifaceted approach to Family Violence prevention included:

  • raising public awareness through education aimed at attitudinal change;
  • adopting an integrated, coordinated and collaborative approach;
  • ensuring approaches are culturally and religiously appropriate;
  • recognising and providing for diverse needs and circumstances.

The Family Court has adopted the following description of family violence:

'Family violence covers a broad range of controlling behaviours, commonly of a physical, sexual, and/or psychological nature, which typically involve fear, harm, intimidation and emotional deprivation. It occurs within a variety of close interpersonal relationships, such as between spouses, partners, parents and children, siblings, and in other relationships where significant others are not part of the physical household but are part of the family and/or are fulfilling the function of family'.

Common forms of violence in families include:

  • spouse/partner abuse (violence among adult partners and ex partners);
  • child abuse/neglect (abuse/neglect of children by an adult);
  • parental abuse (violence perpetrated by a child against their parent); and
  • sibling abuse (violence among siblings).

Background

In 2002 Justice Nicholson appointed a Committee to review the Court's existing family violence policy and to make recommendations.  The Family Violence Committee was convened by Justice Colleen Moore and included a cross-section of Court staff.

The Committee invited submissions from Judges, Court staff, individuals and organisations external to the Court. It also undertook targeted consultations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, and multicultural and ethno specific organisations and groups. The responses reflected a variety of expertise and opinion and demonstrated the need for a comprehensive, integrated and collaborative approach from the Court.

Five Key Areas of Action

The strategy resulting from the Committee's consultations cover the following five key areas of action:

  1. Information & Communication
  2. Safety
  3. Training
  4. Resolving the Dispute
  5. Making the Decision.

Guiding Principles

The following guiding principles have been adopted across all five key areas of action:

1. Primacy of Safety

All who attend the Court and work on its premises should be safe.

2. Recognition of the Impact of Family Violence

Family violence may occur prior, during and after separation and may impact on clients' capacity to effectively participate in Court events.

3. Recognition of the Impact of Violence on Children

Family violence has a significant impact on the well being of children.

4. Recognition of the Diversity of Court Clients

The Court is committed to ensuring that it continues to be responsive to the range of specific needs of diverse client groups.

5. Risk Assessment Approach

A risk assessment approach to the conduct of all Court events is required to support a safe environment.

6. Importance of Information Provision

Relevant, accurate and comprehensive information on the Court's responses to family violence should be widely available and produced in a range of formats to meet the needs of the Court's diverse client base.

7. Community Partnership Approach

Partnerships between the Court and a wide range of organisations, agencies and community groups is essential for the success of the Family Violence Strategy.

8. Importance of Development Programs

Ongoing support to judicial officers and staff through the provision of development programs and access Violence Strategy.

Steering Committee

A Steering Committee will oversight and monitor the implementation of the Family Violence Strategy. 

Justice Colleen Moore will convene the Committee and its members will be drawn from all areas of the Court.

The Steering Committee will receive and analyse reports from designated staff and from the various Working Groups to be established in the five key areas of action. 

It will also operate as a standing committee to provide ongoing advice to the Chief Justice and Chief Executive Officer on family violence issues.