Family law overhaul passes Senate

March 31, 2006 - 8:04AM

A new family law system encouraging shared parenting, mediation outside the courts, and establishing a new definition of domestic violence has passed the Senate.

Family law will undergo its biggest change in more than 30 years despite lingering concerns about the impact on children and victims of violence.

The laws have both single mothers and divorced fathers up in arms.

Fathers' groups say the revamp does not go far enough towards giving dads equal time with their children after a break-down, while mothers argue children will suffer under the new regime.

Attorney-General Philip Ruddock introduced legislation paving the way for the shake-up to parliament last year, along with plans to establish 65 family relationship centres across the country.

The first of the centres is scheduled to be up-and-running soon, heralding a new era in family law in which families considering separation will be compulsorily counselled.

But Labor, the Australian Greens, and the Australian Democrats harbour concerns about the package.

They say a new onus on women to effectively prove allegations of domestic violence and penalties imposed for false claims are worrying and should be removed from the laws.

A new definition of family violence that includes a test of "reasonable" fear of violence was a sticking point, but the government refused to budge on the matter.

The opposition proposed a seven-day cooling-off period after the creation of a parenting plan between separating couples.

The government also rejected a Democrats amendment to ensure that a "meaningful relationship" between a child and parents was one that was free of violence or abuse.

A cross-party Senate committee examining the legislation recommended the government await the findings of official research into domestic violence due to be released later this year before imposing penalties for false allegations.

According to the most recent Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data, there are 1.1 million children aged up to 17 years who have a natural parent living in another home.

This accounts for 23 per cent of all children in that age group.

Seventy-six per cent lived in one-parent families, 13 per cent in step families and nine per cent in blended families.

Children are more likely to live with their mother than their father, and in 84 per cent of cases it is the father living elsewhere.

Around half of those children saw the non-custodial parent at least once a fortnight.

The legislation was delayed for two days because Family First senator Steve Fielding was taken ill.

He wanted to amend the laws to force children to spend equal time with both parents in line with the wishes of fathers' groups.

The bill, which included some government amendments, will now return to the House of Representatives.

2006 AAP