Court data shows family violence has been seriously under-reported

By James Campbell, November 21, 2021 The Sunday Telegraph

The shock finding, which shows family violence has been seriously under-reported, comes from a year of data collected by the Family and Federal Circuit Courts after new rules were introduced making it compulsory for parties filing cases involving children to ­answer questions about risk factors in their lives.

Court data shows family violence has been seriously under-reported. Picture: iStock
Court data shows family violence has been seriously under-reported. Picture: iStock

The surveys found 80 per cent of cases involved allegations of at least one major risk factor of child abuse and family violence, including drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, and threats of harm or abduction.

Separately, a pilot study run by the courts in Adelaide, Brisbane and Parramatta which screened 70 per cent of cases involving children found that 65 per cent of them were classified as “high risk”.

The pilot, called the Lighthouse Project, is a world-first risk screening, triage and ­assessment process.

Under it, parties who are flagged as high-risk are given intensive case management and safety planning by a team of skilled Senior Judicial Registrars, Judicial Registrars and Court Child Experts. Participants are also interviewed and referred to support services.

Disturbingly, around half of the cases in the Lighthouse Project had four or more major risk factors. Almost two-thirds of cases involved allegations of family violence against one of the ­parties to the case.

In around half of the cases, parties alleged a child had been abused or was at risk of abuse, or experienced family violence. Around 40 per cent of parties alleged that drug, alcohol or substance misuse or the mental illness of a party had caused harm or posed a risk of harm to a child.

Family Court Chief Justice William Alstergren.
Family Court Chief Justice William Alstergren.

The findings from the pilot study show much higher instances of family violence and high risk cases than has previously been reported.

In 2015 the Australian Institute of Family Studies found only 38 per cent family law matters had four or more risk factors.

Chief Justice of the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia, the Hon Will Alstergren said the new data showed why the Lighthouse Project needed to be rolled out nationally.

“The project has enabled the court to shine the light on the details of allegations raised in individual cases, and provide critical tailored support for those families,” he said.

“However, the increased prevalence of risk in family law cases, makes it critical that the project be extended nationally to ensure risks are appropriately managed in all locations, including regional Australia, to ensure safer outcomes for all vulnerable parties and children involved in family law disputes.”

Justice Alstergren said “so many parts of the country need this critical support, especially in places like Launceston, Newcastle, Wollongong and Townsville, where more than two-thirds of our litigants allege exposure to family violence.”

Hayley Foster, CEO of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, said there was now undeniable evidence that the majority of family law matters involved high-risk family violence and abuse.

She said the project was changing the way the matters were handled, “but it’s not uniformly available across Australia — it’s time we expanded the pilot to make it national”.

Her views were echoed by Philippa Davis, Principal Solicitor at Women’s Legal Service NSW, who said it confirmed the concerns women’s legal services had been raising for many years – that family violence was dramatically under-reported.

Originally published as Court data shows family violence has been seriously under-reported

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