25 November 2016

Today on White Ribbon Day, the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court announce updates to the Courts’ Family Violence Best Practice Principles to highlight that the victims of family violence are often traumatised and are vulnerable witnesses, and to explain the various means of protection available to judges who are hearing those cases.

The Courts’ Family Violence Best Practice Principles will be updated to reflect the extensive powers which the judiciary have and are encouraged to follow in regard to the management of cross-examination of vulnerable witnesses by alleged perpetrators of family violence.

In addition, the Courts will introduce additional training for staff and implement new screening processes to better identify issues of family violence in matters before the courts. 

The updating of the Family Violence Best Practice Principles follows a number of reports on family violence, including: the Family Law Council’s final report on Families with Complex Needs and the Intersection of the Family Law and Child Protection Systems; Women’s Legal Services Australia’s Safety First in Family Law; and COAG’s Third National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children.

Chief Justice of the Family Court, Diana Bryant welcomes the updated guidelines and acknowledges that victims of family violence can be traumatised and be vulnerable witnesses. 

“To ensure parties are afforded fair and equal access to justice and those at risk of harm are not re-traumatised by the court process, it is essential that judicial officers and practitioners utilise the courts powers to achieve a fair hearing.

“There are a number of ways in which judges can minimize the impact of being cross-examined and that may include directing a person to give testimony and/or appear by video or audio link, forbid the asking of offensive, abusive and hectoring questions and the judge may disallow questions asked that are in a manner or tone that is inappropriate or based on stereotype.

“Judicial officers should also consider the possible impact of family violence on the victim’s ability to give evidence.” 

Following a pilot program and a thorough evaluation, the Courts will introduce a new screening process which will be implemented at the very early stages of the case. In those cases where parents are ordered to attend for family assessment, the Courts will invite parents to complete an online questionnaire containing very specific questions that aim to identify certain risk behaviours which indicate violence during and after the relationship. The questionnaire is to be completed prior to the parties meeting with a family consultant at the interim stage of proceedings. 

Having critical information prior to those interviews will assist the family consultant to better structure the assessment interviews and enquire about the risk indicators that have been identified by the parties.

Chief Judge of the Federal Circuit Court, John Pascoe explained, “The Courts are committed to improving the way in which they deal with issues relating to family violence. The new family violence training program for staff, the enhanced focus around cross-examination of vulnerable witnesses and the new screening process are just some of the initiatives the courts have identified as being important improvements in this area.”

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Media contact: Denise Healy, National Media and Public Affairs Manager
Telephone: 03 8600 4357 or 0409 743 695
Emaildenise.healy@familycourt.gov.au