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Fair Share

The Advertiser (Adelaide), 30 December 2003, By Maria Moscaritolo in Canberra

Separated parents would share equal responsibility for their children's upbringing under a proposed overhaul of the family law system which recommends sidelining the involvement of the Family Court.

A federal parliamentary committee report into child custody yesterday rejected forcing equal joint residency on separated parents but said shared care should be the starting point for custody negotiations.

"Shared parental responsibility does not necessarily mean equal time in residence," Kay Hull, chair of the House of Representatives Family and Community Affairs Committee, said.

"Each parent should start with an expectation of equal care and should have equal say as to where children should reside."

The committee said the system was presently too adversarial and the reforms would put a greater onus on parents to make decisions for their children before turning to their lawyer.

Under its proposals, separated couples would be forced to draw up "parenting plans" and consult each other about their child's welfare, upbringing and education.

The Family Court would become a last resort, used only in cases of abuse or to resolve entrenched disputes.

Parents who split would instead seek mediation and have recourse to a new, legally-binding Families Tribunal.

The report also recommends an overhaul of the child support system, including revising the formula for calculating payments and giving the Child Support Agency greater powers to enforce payments.

Chief Justice of the Family Court Alastair Nicholson said he was "relieved" the report recommended shared parenting over equal time but warned the tribunal would face practical and constitutional hurdles.

The report recommended:

GRANDPARENTS and extended family be considered in access arrangements and be included in mediation and counselling if it is in the child's best interests.

DOUBLING minimum child support payments to $10 a week but reducing the income cap used to calculate child support.

PENALTIES for repeated breaches, including cancellation of driver's licence and parenting orders favouring the other parent. Prison would remain the ultimate sanction for parents who wilfully and repeatedly breached orders.

GIVING the Child Support Agency more powers to collect unpaid money and pursue information on parents' financial status.

ELIMINATING the link between child support payments and the amount of time children spend with each parent.

About 40 per cent of the nation's 684,148 separated parents pay $5 or less in child support a week. About one in three children from separated families see their non-custodial parent once a year or less and less than 3 per cent of children were in shared care arrangements where they had contact with each parent for at least 30 per cent of the time.

The committee said its proposals should ensure parents who exploit loopholes to avoid their financial responsibilities – such as the self-employed – would be forced into line.

The committee received a record 1715 submissions after Prime Minister John Howard asked it to investigate rebuttable joint custody in June.

Mrs Hull said she was confident the unanimous 240-page report, Every picture tells a story, would be accepted by Parliament.

Children and Youth Affairs Minister Larry Anthony said the report was welcomed by the Government.


Pay up or penalties will sting

The Advertiser (Adelaide), 30 December 2003, By Colin James

More than one million Australian children are receiving financial support from their fathers under an outdated formula, a federal inquiry has found.

It has called for an urgent overhaul of the Child Support Scheme, saying the "time is right for a comprehensive re-evaluation" of how maintenance payments are calculated.

The committee has suggested a new formula should be introduced to achieve greater fairness and equity for the 640,707 parents – 91 per cent of whom are fathers – paying an average of $57.23 per week to support almost 1.1 million children.

Those parents who decide not to pay child support are facing a raft of new debt collection measures, including the cancellation of their driver's licences, loss of compulsory preserved superannuation, credit checks, automatic notification of insurance payouts and losing control over joint bank accounts.

The committee's 240-page report into joint custody arrangements says it is "deeply concerned by the level of community dissatisfaction and distress" caused by child support.

Evidence included examples of fathers leaving jobs or refusing higher wages to avoid having to pay child support because they believed it was unfair and creating financial stress.

The report has called for the Federal Government to set up a ministerial taskforce to examine child support while moving immediately to:

DOUBLE the minimum amount of child support from $5 a week to $10, or $260 a year to $520, regardless of how many children are involved.

CALCULATE the amount of child support using after-tax income rather than gross, to give a more accurate indication of money available.

INCREASE existing income level where no support has to be paid "to reflect changing work and parenting patterns evident in the community".

ELIMINATE links between the amount of child support and the time children spend with each parent.

While these measures were being implemented, the committee says detailed research must start on how child support should be calculated.