Australia

‘Threatening to infect the children’: Family courts to fast-track urgent, virus-related applications

Concern is spreading across Europe about a new disease possibly linked to coronavirus in children. Source: AP

From this week the family court and the federal circuit court will begin hearing urgent family violence matters relating to coronavirus within 72 hours of an application being lodged.

Families battling with parenting disputes and escalating violence relating to the COVID-19 crisis will have their matters prioritised by some of the nation's top judges.

Cathy Gale has been practicing family law for years, but never before has she seen a surge in cases like this

“I’m seeing examples on a daily basis where COVID-19 is being used as a weapon of family violence to control the other party, most often when children are involved,” the Director of Resolve Conflict Family Lawyers told SBS News.

“We have seen examples in our practice of men threatening to expose themselves to the virus and spread it to the family or threatening to expose their children to the virus if they don’t get their way or the parent doesn’t do whatever they're saying they should do,” she said.

It’s a trend being seen around Australia and family courts are ramping up their hearings in response to the urgent demand.

From Wednesday, the family court and the federal circuit court will begin hearing all family violence matters relating to coronavirus within 72 hours of the application being lodged.

Ms Gale said it’s a welcomed move that is much needed in this time of crisis.

“It’s important people know the courts are open for business, they are prioritising family violence matters, don’t feel you are there without support,” she said.

Parenting disputes and violence have soared since March and the start of the coronavirus lockdown, according to the Law Council of Australia.

"Although most families are trying their best to be reasonable and flexible during these unusual times, for some families this has not been possible," council President Pauline Wright said on Monday.

She said court staff and judges have implemented online mediation and virtual hearings amongst other measures.

The courts' primary concerns include:

  • Children at risk by abusers flouting distancing rules
  • Parents who withhold contact for no valid reason
  • Centres where parents can have supervised contact being shut because of COVID-19
  • Issues with children moving across closed borders

Feeling unsafe

A survey of domestic violence frontline workers conducted by Women’s Safety New South Wales found a surge of women clients feeling unsafe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

77 per cent of survey frontline workers surveyed reported they had already seen an increase in clients who were experiencing issues in relation to child contact, shared care and family law since the outbreak.

A majority of survey respondents said that safe places for child handovers no longer being open or available was a serious issue of concern for clients in the context of COVID-19.

Ms Gale said some abusers were using the misconception that the courts were closed to try and get away with breaking the law.

“I’ve seen party’s breaching intervention orders thinking the courts are closed and so there are no repercussions,” she said. 

Adding that it was important for all women to know that help is out there during this difficult time.

“There has never been a more important time for victims to know support is there, the courts are there, services are there, police are trying to help,” she said.  

If you or someone you know is impacted by family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000.

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People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus

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