The Family Law (Shared Parental Responsibility) Amendment Act 2006 introduced the most radical changes to Australia’s family law since the original Act in 1975. The Amendment Act attempted a significant cultural change – to encourage more shared and co-operative parenting after separation, and to shift the focus, for post-separation dispute resolution, away from court action and towards private, mediated methods. It is arguable that the 2006 Amendment Act represents the most substantial step ever taken by the Commonwealth towards interventionism in family matters.
Features of the reforms
The 2006 amendments addressed only the parenting aspects of the Family Law Act, leaving the property settlement provisions virtually untouched. Features of the reforms included:
- new language and terminology: references to ‘residence’ and ‘contact’ have been changed to ‘spending time’ or ‘communicating’ with a parent;
- a new presumption of equal shared parental responsibility;
- significant changes to the court’s method of assessing the best interests of a child;
- emphasis on private resolution of parenting issues including an expansive new system of compulsory family dispute resolution;
- change in focus from court-based services to family services provided by community-based organisations (eg for counselling, parenting training, and dispute resolution);
- a new role for family consultants in family law cases;
- re-defined role for ‘independent children’s lawyers’;
- new importance for home-grown ‘parenting plans’;
- tougher penalties for contravention of orders; and
- an innovative new court process for ‘child-related proceedings’.
See the sections below for more detail in relation to each of these features.