Commonwealth Attorney-General George Brandis QC launched the Family Advocacy and Support Service (FASS) in Western Sydney on Wednesday.
The service appoints duty lawyers who have an understanding of trauma to some of the busiest courts that deal with family law matters in the state. The lawyers are on hand to help people navigate family law disputes and deal with their associated legal needs.
Legal Aid NSW received Commonwealth funding to establish the FASS under the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children.
“Coming to court can be a tremendously stressful experience – and when parenting disputes involve allegations of family violence, there is so much at stake,” said Legal Aid NSW Family Law Director Kylie Beckhouse.
“This innovative approach will keep children and parents safer by offering the right support at a crucial time, with an emphasis on practical measures to keep them safe.”
Ms Beckhouse said the FASS duty lawyers will assist people with issues such as child abduction and disputes over custody, as well as related legal needs such as obtaining domestic violence orders.
“Family Advocacy and Support Service lawyers will ensure the voices of family violence victims are heard – whether that is by helping gather evidence so that courts have access to a more complete picture of a family’s situation, or by representing a parent in an urgent application,” Ms Beckhouse said.
“But it also goes beyond providing much-needed legal support to treat the client as a whole person, with a unique story and a unique set of social and practical needs that extend well past the courtroom door.
“This approach recognises that families affected by violence may also have complex non-legal needs in areas like housing and mental health.”
Family lawyers were also pleased with the government’s $80 million commitment to frontline family law services in the federal budget, as well as the announcement this month of the first comprehensive review of the Family Law Act in 40 years.
Heather McKinnon, who leads Slater and Gordon’s family law practice group, said the introduction of parental management hearings and extra family consultants could reduce the pressure on the courts.
“Australia used to have a world-class family law system, but more recently the courts have been overwhelmed by smaller parenting disputes that divert attention away from more serious cases,” Ms McKinnon said.
“To put it in context, sometimes a judge will hear a school drop-off dispute next to a case involving allegations of physical violence or drug addiction.”
She said the family consultant trial program in Sydney’s Parramatta, which was included in the budget, could improve outcomes for children by effectively providing a ‘triage’ service for the Family Court.
“In our experience, most disagreements occur between very young parents, with many descending into screaming matches where what’s best for the children is forgotten,” Ms McKinnon said.
“Relationship breakdown is incredibly difficult for children and fighting in court for three years is just going to make things harder, so triaging these smaller issues is going to remove some of the pressure on judges and also be less stressful for children.
“The pilot family consultant program in Parramatta will provide quantitative evidence of what works and what doesn’t, so we can avoid the knee-jerk reactions that have caused many of the current problems plaguing Australia’s family law system.”