Separated parents and the family law system: What does the evidence say?

August 31st, 2017

alk of reforming the Family Court and family law system is back in the headlines(link is external) , but agitation about the family law system has a long history.

Since the introduction of the Family Law Act and the establishment of the Family Court of Australia in 1976, there have been many parliamentary inquiries and numerous reforms. However, sad stories of parents who’ve had a tough time of the law continue to shape public and politcians’ perceptions(link is external) of how family law functions in Australia.

What does the empirical evidence say?

The findings from a large research program conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies tells many stories. One of the main ones is a good news story: most couples separate amicably, work parenting and property out for themselves and maintain good relationships with the other parent and their children after separation. This applies to more than 70% of separated parents.

There are also more complex stories in the data. One concerns the parents who do use the family law system. Where parents don’t work things out themselves, about 3% use court, 6% use lawyer-based negotiation and about 10% use family dispute resolution (FDR), which is a form of mediation. Since 2006, FDR has become much more widely used, with 10% of parents in 2014 using this mechanism, compared with 3% in 2006. At the same time, lawyers are used less (11% cf 6%) and so are courts (8% cf 3%).

The families who use the family law system are troubled. They are much more likely to have a history of family violence, concerns for their own or their children’s safety as a result of ongoing contact with the other parent, mental ill health, substance abuse, gambling, problematic social media or pornography use.