Key Social Issues in the Development of Australian Family Law: Research and Its Impact on Policy and Practice

By Moloney, Lawrie; Weston, Ruth et al. | Journal of Family Studies, August 2013 | Go to article overview

Key Social Issues in the Development of Australian Family Law: Research and Its Impact on Policy and Practice


Moloney, Lawrie, Weston, Ruth, Hayes, Alan, Journal of Family Studies


ABSTRACT: As in other Western countries, Australian society has changed considerably over the past 50 years, creating demands for shifts in family-related policies, practices and legislation. The social sciences have played an important role in this process by monitoring changes, informing the development of appropriate responses and assessing the effectiveness of such responses. In this article, we briefly explore four key social changes that have had a profound impact on Australian families--women's increasing participation in the workforce; changing perceptions of fatherhood; greater recognition of the existence and destructive consequences of family violence and child abuse; and the increased emphasis on the rights of the child. We suggest that the first two of these changes contributed significantly to the introduction of the Australian Family Law Act 1975 (Cth), and that the other two changes have had a continuing significant influence on legislators' attempts to articulate and implement acceptable decision-making principles with regard to post-separation parenting. Next we consider the most recent major amendments to Australian family law, the 2006 'shared parental responsibility' legislation, and its subsequent evaluation by the Australian Institute of Family Studies. We show how this evaluation has provided a basis for examining both the extent to which the policy and practice intentions of these reforms were being achieved, and the extent to which further changes were required. We conclude by noting how the evaluation, along with other research, has contributed to further important changes to family law service provision and further significant legislative amendments.

KEYWORDS: family law, social change, decisions about children, shared parenting, women in the workforce, fatherhood, rights of the child, family violence

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Reviewing a half-century of scholarship as family sociologist, Furstenberg (2011, p. 192) observed that,

   It is no exaggeration to say that the [Western] family
   changed more dramatically in the latter half of the
   twentieth century than in any comparable span of time
   in our history ... This transition has seen many family
   practices revised, if not reversed or abandoned.

In this statement, Furstenberg's main focus was on the American family. But as with American families, much of the functioning and structures associated with contemporary Australian families would be scarcely recognisable to a social commentator working in the first half of the last century. Many factors have contributed to these changes. These include the economy and the shifting demands of the labour market, as well as changing social norms and priorities, which in turn influence trends in family formation and family dissolution. That none of these factors occur in isolation and that all are reciprocally linked, means that research and evaluation outcomes are always limited and usually contested. On the other hand, without good research and good evaluation, policy decisions that inevitably impact on citizens' quality of life, must be built on the considerably more shaky foundations of personal hunches and personal beliefs.

In this article, we briefly review evidence of four social changes--women's increasing participation in the workforce; changing perceptions of fatherhood; the formal articulation of family violence and child abuse and recognition of its destructive consequences; and the increased emphasis on the rights of the child. We suggest that these changes have had a profound impact on the way large numbers of men and women deal with intimate relationships with each other and with their children, and on the way men and women construct the issues that arise when one or both of them decide that their relationship is no longer viable.

In the second part of the article, we provide examples of how the Issues raised by these changes provide an important backdrop for understanding the development of legislation, and legislative and service provision processes associated with separation and divorce in Australia, including service provision changes. …

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