On 26 August 2020, the Assistant Minister for Forestry and Fisheries, Senator Jonathan Duniam, introduced the Family Law Amendment (Risk Screening Protections) Bill 2020 (Cth) (“the Bill”) into the Senate for the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator Marise Payne. The Bill passed the Senate without amendments on 8 October 2020, and is yet to be introduced into the House of Representatives.
The Bill seeks to amend the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) (“the Act”) in order to establish additional protections within the Federal Family Court, in order to support cases with family safety risks. It follows the Government’s announcement in December 2019 to pilot a trial systematic approach to screening family safety risks, and managing the identified levels of risk through case management pathways. The Bill seeks to implement new safety measures in order to support the new screening process.
A pilot of the new family safety risk screening processes is due to operate from 2020 to 2022 from the Brisbane, Parramatta, and Adelaide court registries. These registries collectively receive more than 42% of family court filings.
Under this pilot process, a specialized team within the courts will screen newly filed matters for family risk. Parties who file or respond to applications at one of these locations will be asked to complete an online risk screening questionnaire and offered information about safety planning and support services as part of the process. The matters will then be managed according to their identified level of risk. Family counsellors will be notified of high risk cases, and will be required to take early action. Counsellors will have to conduct a follow-up risk assessment, develop safety and wellbeing plans, as well as offer referrals to support services. Low risk cases may be ordered by the court to participate in family dispute resolution.
A specialist family violence list, also named the Evatt List, will also be established under the process, in order to manage and resolve high-risk matters. The list will be supported by a multi-disciplinary team led by a judge, and will include registrars and family counsellors.
The Bill proposes amendments that aim to establish protections for the information that will be generated through the new risk screening processes. The amendments will ensure that information obtained or produced through the risk screening process be kept completely confidential, unless in limited circumstances. Exceptions will be allowed if disclosure is necessary in protecting a child from the risk of harm, or to prevent or lessen serious threats to the life, health, or property of a person.
Information that is obtained or produced in the processes will also be made inadmissible in courts and tribunals. However, the information can be disclosed, if the information or evidence is in regards to a child being abused, or is at risk of abuse. Senator Duniam, in his second reading speech to the Senate, noted that the confidentiality and admissibility provisions aim to allow for early identification and management of safety concerns. He further clarified that these processes are not to provide or replace evidence in proceedings.
The Bill also seeks to provide immunity for court officials who undertake new non-judicial roles as part of the risk screening process. This is in order to support the officials in making referrals and their determination of appropriate case management pathways based on risk screening information. The confidentiality, inadmissibility, and immunity provisions are consistent and reflective of current family counselling protections under the Act.
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Family Law Amendment (Risk Screening Protections) Bill 2020 (Cth) and supplementary information available from TimeBase’s LawOne Service
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