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Shining a New Light – The Lighthouse Project

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By Robert Kukuruzovic, Lawyer

The Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (“the Court”) recently trialled a new initiative, the Lighthouse Project, providing increased and fast-tracked support for families deemed at high risk of violence or other harm. As of 28 November 2022, this program has expanded to all major registries in Australia.

This article sheds some light on this new program and what it means for families.

Trial and Expansion

During its pilot program, the Court found some startling statistics, as follows:

  • During the test period, 72% of matters had at least one party screened, 60% of whom were classed as high risk, 30% as medium and 23% as low;
  • In over 80% of cases, a party had experienced family violence; and
  • In 66% of cases, there were four or more risk factors, including children experiencing family violence, drug/alcohol abuse causing or risking harm and a risk of child abduction.

The successful trial showed the nationwide need for this project and highlighted its potential to be a ground-breaking development in assessing and managing risk for those who are most vulnerable.

What is the Lighthouse Project?

In recent years, the concerningly high number of family violence incidents in Australia led to growing calls for reform in the legal system. The Court acknowledges the unacceptable rates of violence in our society, noting that many family violence incidents remain unreported.

Protection for Families

The Court now provides assistance within the legal system to families most at risk. The Lighthouse Project (“the Project”) initiative began as a pilot program in the Adelaide Registry on 7 December 2020, then in Brisbane and Parramatta on 11 January 2021. It offers a confidential screening process for any case in which parenting orders are sought. One or more of the parties may self-report and notify the Court about the risk and concerns they are facing or believe they may face during their proceedings. The information obtained during the screening process cannot be admitted as evidence in any case, with the aim that parties will feel more comfortable and willing to be accurate with their reporting of risk.

The Process

The Court uses the “Family DOORS Triage” risk screen. This screen consists of three stages or “Doors” which allow the Court to assess the risk to the party completing it.

 Door 1: Self reporting of risk

As set out above, the screening process begins when a party applies for parenting or both parenting and property orders, or when they respond to such an application. They are provided with a link to complete an online questionnaire consisting of simple yes or no questions to be completed without direction from anyone else, including their legal representatives.

The questionnaire does not allow the parties to submit written responses or narratives and is designed to provide a more global view of the party’s situation, rather than focusing on individual incidents.

If a party indicates medium or high risk in this stage, they will proceed to the next phase.

Door 2: Self reporting of status & support

During this stage, the party will provide more information about how they are coping with their current situation and the risk factors they identified in Door 1. This includes information about support they are receiving, e.g. counselling, and their support network generally such as close family and friends who they can rely on or confide in.

If the party still reports a medium or high risk at this point, then they will proceed to the next phase.

Door 3: Assessment

If the party has progressed to stage 3, Court appointed specialists, including Judicial Registrars and Triage Counsellors, assess each screen and explore the risk identified in more detail. The parties are again placed into one of three assessment categories: Low, Medium and High Risk, so that the Court can provide more specific and catered case management approaches that better suit each individual circumstance.

Where the Court deems the matter to be of low or medium risk at this point, they may provide support such as safety planning and referrals to external service providers or they may also provide a range of case management options, such as Family Dispute Resolution.

However, if the Court considers the case to be high risk, then it will be referred to a Triage Counsellor for immediate action such as a telephone interview with the party. They will also undertake a detailed risk assessment, provide safety and wellbeing plans as well as service referrals.

The Evatt List

In conjunction with the process described above, the Court has created the special Evatt List (“the List”) to hear these high risk cases. The Registrars and support staff working in this List are experienced experts in family law, family violence and the management of such cases. They focus on quick turnaround times, early intervention and information gathering, as time can often be of the essence.

 Where a case is considered to be high risk and the Triage Counsellor has completed their clinical review, the case is referred to a Judicial Registrar, who decides whether it may be heard in this List. Notably, a party or a legal practitioner cannot ask the Court to place their matter on this List, it must be referred and approved by the Court.

Also note that some matters are not eligible for this List, including:

  • Cases involving only financial and/or property orders;
  • Child support only cases;
  • Child maintenance cases; or
  • Contravention applications.

Takeaways

The Project is good news for families at risk, with the Court now having more access to better information about risks of violence and harm, therefore becoming more able to manage those circumstances overall.

The Project is only available in Court proceedings commenced on or after 28 November 2022. For example, a party filing a Response on 1 December 2022 will not be able to access this program if the Initiating Application was filed on 25 November 2022.

If you or someone you know is going through a separation or has experienced family violence, we recommend you seek legal advice from MST Lawyers’ highly experienced Family Law Team. You can contact our team on (03) 8540 0200 or at familylaw@mst.com.au.