By PHIL TAYLOR
Some children's relationships with their parents are destroyed unnecessarily by inflexible family laws, says a senior Family Court judge.
In a strongly worded speech this week, Judge Jan Doogue said laws introduced 10 years ago lacked the sophistication needed today.
She said the laws were "social experimentation", and hinted they were introduced without thorough evaluation.
Speaking at a child and youth law conference, Judge Doogue called for measures to ease the negative effects of the laws while proper research was done into their impact.
The laws - the Domestic Violence Act and section 16B of the Guardianship Act - tended to alienate the parents, generally fathers, who had lost custody, she said.
This often began with the serving of temporary protection orders, and became entrenched by delays in having a court hearing.
The law required disputed orders to be heard within 42 days but, said Judge Doogue, who has presided in the Family Court since 1994, that seldom occurred because of lack of court time and staff.
The result was that banned parents could go months without seeing their child at a critical time, jeopardising long-term relationships.
A study of the Domestic Violence Act in 2000 found that all 15 males respondents who discussed access arrangements were no longer in contact with their children or saw them rarely.
This, Judge Doogue said was "worrying".
"They were embittered about the effects and implications of the legislation."
The Union of Fathers lobby group said the judge's comments were a realistic acknowledgement of what was happening in the Family Court, and agreed it needed to be much more closely looked at.
"Something like 400,000 children live in disrupted families," said national co-ordinator Bevan Berg.
"If we don't deal with that rationally and sensibly and put in place the best plans we can to cater for the impact on those children, you can imagine what's going to happen down the track."
The laws came about as a result of an inquiry in 1994 by former Chief Justice Sir Ronald Davison into the Family Court handling of a case in which a father killed his children.
Sir Ronald concluded that a new social philosophy was needed to deal with domestic violence.
He acknowledged that the law might deprive some children of a close relationship with a parent but said he could see no middle course.
Judge Doogue said the laws had "de-normalised domestic violence" but lacked the flexibility to fit many cases now coming before the court.
Supervised access had been regarded as way of balancing a child's right to be safe and a parent's right for access, but this sometimes worked against the best interest of the child.
Judge Doogue made nine recommendations, including more research, better resources, a call centre operator dedicated to family cases and steps to overcome language-based misunderstandings.
Mr Berg said the blame shouldn't be laid at the feet of "one person who thought he had a good idea".
It should be remembered that hundreds of people were involved in shaping how family law worked.
Acting Justice Minister Margaret Wilson said she not seen the speech and could not comment.
* Judge Jan Doogue says family laws are "social experimentation", lacking in sophistication.
* Parents who lose custody, generally fathers, tend to be isolated.
* Banned parents can go for months without seeing their children.
By PHIL TAYLOR