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Frank Walker
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WHAT’S THE DEFINITION OF ‘FAMILY VIOLENCE’?

25/05/2011

When relationships break down and there are children involved, family law aims to make decisions based on what’s best for the kids.

But it’s a tricky business.

Many of us saw the reports last week about traffic delays on the harbour bridge caused by a desperate dad staging a protest to make the point that the system wasn’t protecting kids. In his words, “no one wants to help the blokes; the chicks get in first and start throwing stones.”

Protecting kids is actually the focus of the proposed Family Violence and Other Measures Bill.

One of the criticisms of shared parenting (which aims to have both parents spending substantial time with the kids) was that some kids were being put in harm’s way. Women were sometimes afraid to raise allegations of violence against their partner for fear the court wouldn’t believe them and they’d be labelled an “unfriendly parent” (one who won’t facilitate their child’s healthy relationship with the other parent), meaning they’d risk getting less time in the care split. Plus they could be hit with court costs.

Under the proposed legislation, while shared parenting is still the aim, it’s only feasible if the kids are safe from harm. Courts will have better access to evidence of violence, such as information from child welfare agencies, and from lawyers whose clients have mentioned violence. And there won’t be mandatory court costs for making false allegations.

The thing that has some worried – particularly dads – is the new definition for ‘family violence’. The Bill defines it as, ‘violent, threatening or other behaviour by a person that coerces or controls a member of the person’s family, or causes them to be fearful’.

It lists examples, including not only physical ones (eg. assault, sexual assault, stalking or intentionally destroying property) but also harassment (eg. repeated derogatory taunting), emotional manipulation (eg. preventing someone from seeing family or friends) and financial abuse (eg. withholding financial support).

Many applaud the additions. But under current law, it’s only family violence if the behaviour causes the family member to ‘reasonably’ fear for their safety. Remove that word and there’s concern the system may become clogged with unreasonable allegations, particularly given the new categories in the definition. Tactics by parents wanting a better court result.

The Bill also states that a child is exposed to family violence if they see it, hear it, or otherwise experience its effects. Under the proposed definition, it could be argued that kids who hear one parent verbally slanging the other (overwrought after learning, “it’s over!”) are exposed to family violence. People can behave uncharacteristically when emotions run high.

Protecting kids is the right goal. But the wording may need tweaking to help the courts focus on legitimate allegations.


 

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