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Stripping court of custody role

The Daily Telegraph, Australia, By TORY MAGUIRE, Political Reporter, December 30, 2003

All smiles... father Ray Lebnton with daughters Hayley, 3, and Emma, 4. Picture: JEFF HERBERT

THE hated Family Court could be stripped of power to cut costs and keep lawyers out of messy child custody battles.

It is part of sweeping reforms proposed by a federal committee, which also wants an overhaul of child support payments. The centrepiece of the unanimous bipartisan report is "shared parenting", even though it doesn't necessarily mean equal time in each home.

Separating couples would go through two "pre-court" tiers of negotiating, including compulsory mediation before seeking a "parenting order" from a new families tribunal.

A reduced Family Court would continue in cases where there is entrenched conflict, violence, substance and child abuse, and limited appeals.

It is the culmination of a six-month inquiry into custody arrangements by the House family and community affairs committee.

It made 29 recommendations that were mostly welcomed.

However, it rejected a controversial proposal to enforce automatic 50/50 joint custody of children, saying it would lead to further litigation as parents went to court to fight impractical or unsafe living arrangements. Instead, the committee said, there should be a "presumption of shared parenting", where parents had equal say over decisions about education, religious and cultural upbringing, health, name changes and place of residence.

On child support the committee said the minimum payment of $5 a week, which 40 per cent of non-custodial parents currently paid, should be doubled to $10.

And the Child Support Agency should be given tough new powers to access money from the self-employed and the unemployed, and those who did not comply should face fines and even jail.

The families tribunal, to be staffed by mediators, child psychologists and legal professionals, would be able to make binding decisions over custody and would have powers to investigate allegations of violence.

Family Court Chief Justice Alastair Nicholson said the recommendations were positive but there were "both constitutional and practical obstacles to this happening".

Prime Minister John Howard was said to be "very happy" with the report. "He suggested that the inquiry might look at greater access for fathers and he was a strong supporter of greater access so he was very happy with the outcome," Mr Howard's spokesman said.

Lone Fathers Association president Barry Williams cautiously welcomed the report, but said many fathers would be upset the committee had not ordered automatic 50/50 custody. "As we said, and everyone said, and the Prime Minister said – children should spend ample time with both parents and if they are not doing that then it is not shared care," Mr Williams said.

Womens' groups, however, were pleased at the rejection of 50/50, and the committee's wish to see a crackdown on child support avoidance.

"There is a lot of detail that goes beyond the recommendations," National Council of Single Mothers and their Children convenor Dr Elspeth McInnes said. "But they recognised that child support avoidance is huge and halving children between separated parents just doesn't work."

Grandparents were yesterday happy with the committee's recommendation they be included in mediation and considered by parents when developing post-separation parenting plans.

Fathers embrace changes RAY Lenton (pictured above) is all too familiar with the heartbreak and despair relationship breakdowns can inflict on families.

But yesterday the Sydney co-ordinator of Dads in Distress and father-of-four was delighted by proposed child custody changes.

"These are very, very significant reforms that are long overdue and which will finally ensure the system is focused on the best outcomes of the child," Mr Lenton said.

"This report vindicates the men's movement and fathers' lobby, taking into account almost everything we've been arguing for – for the past two decades.

"We're most excited about the introduction of mandatory separation counselling, which has been desperately needed for a long time."

But members of the support network of non-custodial fathers were disappointed the concept of 50-50 shared custody was not among the recommendations.

The entry point shopfronts – where separating parents could receive advice on drawing up a "parenting plan" – was a "visionary" idea untried anywhere else in the world, Mr Lenton said.

He said he was pleased with the idea of a Families Tribunal replacing many Family Court functions.

Other members of DiD had mixed reactions to the tribunal, fearing it would be staffed by Family Court personnel.