The Hon Chief Justice William Alstergren AO
5 December 2022
Brief welcome and introduction of Attorney-General
Good morning everyone.
May I begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the lands upon which we meet today, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, and pay mine and the Courts’ respects to elders past, present and emerging.
I also acknowledge the presence of:
- The Honourable Mark Dreyfus KC MP, Attorney-General for the Commonwealth of Australia;
- The Honourable Elizabeth Evatt AC, the first Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia and whom the Lighthouse high risk Evatt List is named after;
- The Deputy Chief Justice, the Honourable Robert McClelland AO, the Honourable Justice Jacoba Brasch, Judge in charge of the Critical Incident List, her Honour Judge Kate Hughes, Chair of the Courts’ Family Violence Committee, and Judges of the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (Division 1) and (Division 2);
- Her Honour Judge Skinner, President of the Children’s Court of NSW;
- Our special guests, Ms Rosie Batty AO, Mr and Mrs Lloyd and Sue Clarke, and Ms Danielle Carroll and husband Rhys;
- Ms Anne Hollonds, National Children’s Commissioner;
- Ms Hayley Foster, CEO, Full Stop Australia;
- Members of the Bar and of the legal profession, including President of the NSW Bar Ms Gabrielle Bashir SC
- Representatives of Family Advocacy and Support Services including Matthew.
I would like to welcome you all to today’s event to officially launch Lighthouse, a critical part of the Courts’ response to family violence in our community.
Family Violence in our society is a national disgrace. It has often gone under reported. That has led in the past to the Courts not always being appropriately informed, which was compounded by the absence of adequate risk screening. Lighthouse will go a long way to solving these risk screening problems and delay.
Lighthouse is a world leading initiative of the Courts that focuses on the safety of children and vulnerable parties. This is done in two ways; firstly, through the early identification of safety risks at the very start of the proceedings, and secondly, utilising the most effective and appropriate case management pathway including referrals to much needed support and health services particularly for people at high risk. It is now a proven model that has, during its pilot phase, demonstrated great success.
Safety and access to justice are two of our major priorities, and this model helps us to achieve both.
Before I address you this morning on the importance of Lighthouse, I have the honour of introducing the Attorney-General for the Commonwealth of Australia, the Hon Mark Dreyfus KC MP, to speak.
The Attorney-General is a keen supporter of Lighthouse and of our Courts.
- the Attorney-General,
- Senator the Hon Katy Gallagher, Minister for Women, Minister for Finance and Minister for the Public Service, and
- the Hon Amanda Rishworth MP, Minister for Social Services, for their support.
Whilst I know the latter two Ministers have been unable to be here, they have sent their representatives. I also thank the Government, including those in Cabinet and the Prime Minister, who prioritised this project in difficult times because it was the decent thing to do.
They should all be appropriately recognised for their support of this important initiative and for their broader response to Family Violence through the National Plan to End Family Violence against Women and Children.
Knowing the Attorney-General as I do, as one of the nations most astute lawyers, he has a deep commitment to access to justice and his support of Lighthouse has been essential to its success.
The Attorney-General recognises, as does this Government and I think now all those in Parliament, the need to take active steps to eradicate the devastating impacts of family violence in our society. Today is a very positive step towards that goal.
[the Chief Justice invited the Attorney-General to the lectern to speak]
Thank you Attorney-General, for your words and for your support of this important initiative.
Firstly, I would like to thank Rosie Batty, Sue and Lloyd Clarke, and Danielle and Rhys Carroll for their attendance and support today. I cannot imagine the pain they have been through and continue to deal with. I greatly respect their strength and their willingness to help others. Through their advocacy they honour their loved ones lost through terrible acts of family violence. It is very much their advocacy that has seen programs like Lighthouse supported and they have significantly raised public awareness. Today should be a proud moment for each of them; I know having spoken to each of them at length that they have been advocating for a real improvement like this for years.
Speaking also to Matthew from FASS this morning, referrals to FASS increased in Parramatta because of Lighthouse and they are expecting a significant improvement across the country.
Dealing with family violence in our society has to be prioritised. For the Courts, it is our responsibility to ensure that each decision we make is safe, carefully considered, fair, well informed and in the best interests of children. This includes managing risks of family violence appropriately.
Risk screening is vitally important. The data already gathered through our new Notice of Child Abuse, Family Violence or Risk demonstrates the need for the Lighthouse model. Major risk factors are alleged to the following proportions in the parenting cases filed in our Courts:1
- family violence experience by a party – in 80% of matters;
- Child abuse or a risk of child abuse – in 70% of matters;
- Mental health issues harming a child or putting a child at risk – in 58% of matters; and
- Drug, alcohol or substance misuse harming a child or putting a child at risk – in 53% of matters.
And the data reveals that these cases do not just have one risk factor in them. In 66% of matters the parties disclosed four or more risk factors – a prevalence much higher than previously understood. Indeed, almost 80% of all parenting cases filed last financial year were referred to State or Territory child welfare agencies due to the risks alleged.2
These figures are shocking and go some way to depicting the prevalence of family violence and other risks in our courts and in the community.
Lighthouse was born of a vision in our Courts that screening litigants for family violence as soon as they enter the court system will help to ensure the safety of families and children. This will in turn, ensure better outcomes as families move forward with their lives. Lighthouse is not just about legal outcomes, but aims to ensure better health outcomes, such as supporting mental wellbeing, and also social support such as financial counselling, rehabilitation programs or parenting programs, so that their children can thrive.
Lighthouse involves three interconnected processes for parenting cases:
- early risk screening through a secure online platform at the point of filing
- assessment and triage of cases by a team of highly qualified specialists who will provide support and refer the party to support services, both legal and non-legal, and
- safe and tailored case management for each family, which includes referring high risk cases to a dedicated court list, known as the Evatt List (named after The Hon Elizabeth Evatt AC who is here today).
As previously stated, this is a world-leading model. We are the first courts to be implementing bespoke, confidential risk screening at the point of filing. I acknowledge Professor Jennifer McIntosh who is here today and has played a critical role in the development of the Family DOORS Triage risk screen and tailoring it to the specific needs of our courts.3 Courts in the UK and New Zealand have already expressed interest in what we are doing and will be following our progress.
The pilot has received a very positive independent evaluation. It was recommended for continued funding in the Final Report of the Joint Select Committee on Australia’s Family Law System and acknowledged as intrinsic to the Courts’ key reforms in the National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children for 2022-324.
The pilot also demonstrated the need to appropriately manage risk in cases involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. The Court has greatly expanded the number of Indigenous Family Liaison Officers employed by the Courts to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples; and I note that our local Sydney Indigenous Family Liaison Officer is in attendance today.
While Lighthouse is the centrepiece of the Courts’ family violence response, it is in fact part of a suite of initiatives implemented by our Courts to identify risk and help to protect vulnerable people. These measures include:
- the co-location of police and child welfare representatives within court registries,
- information sharing arrangements to allow judges and registrars to obtain critical information from State and Territory agencies,
- minimising the risk of economic coercion in smaller financial disputes through speedy and low cost registrar-led court lists and mediation,
- the use of secure safe rooms in court buildings and
- the use of electronic hearings and electronic mediations to minimise risk and any concern about attending a court registry.
I also want to thank the Women’s Legal Services across Australia who have continued to meet with me, and give helpful feedback on our systems and help us anticipate what is happening on the front line of family violence. Their assistance has been invaluable. I am delighted that Hayley Foster, Angela Lynch and Pip Davis are here today. During COVID they and the other women’s legal groups across Australia became vital advisors for the Courts. I am very grateful to Hayley, Pip and Angela for their wise counsel.
Whilst we are Courts, and support services are doing what we can when Family Violence has occurred, let’s do more.
It is time for all of us to expect, or perhaps demand, that as a society we have a proper national conversation about this disgraceful conduct. A conversation that seeks to properly understand the causes, to educate, to communicate, to prevent and to condemn this behaviour. It is not a responsibility placed just on Government, it is a responsibility we all should bear – as parents, as siblings, as families, as friends, as teachers, as co-workers, as employers, as sportspeople, as the media and as community leaders, – all with the same message: as Australians, we say no. This cannot continue to happen.
We simply cannot accept as a society the fact that 1 woman a week is murdered by their current or former partner; that 1 in every 6 women have experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or previous partner; and that 1 in 4 women have experienced emotional abuse from a current or previous partner.5 We cannot accept that one child is killed every 14 days or the direct and indirect harm caused by family violence experienced by thousands of children and vulnerable people every year. Harm that often the victims may never recover from.
This message, and the launch of Lighthouse, are particularly fitting given we are in the middle of the United Nation’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence.
The Courts are committed to continuing to implement reforms that will benefit the most vulnerable members of our community, and most importantly, their children, and in particular to protect them from the impacts of family violence.
The Chief Justice then called upon:
- Ms Hayley Foster, CEO of Full Stop Australia
- Ms Rosie Batty AO
- Mr Lloyd and Mrs Sue Clarke
- Ms Danielle Carroll
1 Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (Division 1) and Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (Division 2) Annual Reports FY2021-2022, p 15: https://www.fcfcoa.gov.au/fcfcoa-annual-reports
3 The DOORS Triage Tool, McIntosh, J.E. 2020, Revised 2022 with contributions by Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (FCFCOA).
4 Commonwealth of Australia (Department of Social Services) 2022, National Plan to End Violence against Women and Children 2022-2032: https://www.dss.gov.au/women-programs-services-reducing-violence/the-national-plan-to-end-violence-against-women-and-children-2022-2032
5 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2018. Family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia 2018: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/domestic-violence/family-domestic-sexual-violence-in-australia-2018/summary