Custody battles: 'Give children more power to decide'
CHILDREN caught in custody battles would tell judges where they want to live, under radical reforms recommended by Queensland's child rights watchdog.
The State Government's Family and Child Commission wants Family Court judges to give more focus to "protecting children from harm" when ruling on custody.
Chief Commissioner Cheryl Vardon said children should be heard in court proceedings.
Warning that joint custody was not always appropriate, she called for kids to be given a bigger say in whether they live with one or both parents.
"It's all very well to aim for shared care but that's simply not appropriate if that means the child is going to be damaged further," Ms Vardon told The Courier-Mail yesterday.
"If there is harm happening… and allegations are proven, of course the child must be protected."
In the biggest shake-up of family law in four decades, the Federal Government has asked the Australian Law Reform Commission to devise sweeping reforms, with a focus on family violence and child abuse.
The commission's issues paper cites concern over the "lack of respect and weight given to the views of the child" in custody disputes. Judges can already appoint an Independent Children's Lawyer to present a child's views, or order a report by a "family consultant".
But the commission said it was rare for judges to meet children.
Ms Vardon said yesterday judges should consult children in custody disputes, as it was important for children's points of view to be heard.
"We need a better way of listening to the voices and opinions of children," she said.
"With safeguards, we certainly believe children should be heard in court proceedings.
"In the end the court, through the best information possible, has to make that decision (on custody)."
The Family Law Act says judges must consider the best interests of the child when ruling on custody - taking into account family violence as well as the benefit of a meaningful relationship with both parents.
The Queensland Family and Child Commission has told the commission the law needs to be made clearer.
"The primary consideration for determining what is in the child's best interests should be the need to protect the child from harm," its submission said.
"The legislation should be drafted in such a way to make this explicitly clear.
"While there is a benefit to the child having a meaningful relationship with both parents, this should not be placed above a child's protection."
A federal parliamentary inquiry into family law recently warned that the safety of children was not being appropriately prioritised in many family law matters.
Liberal MP Sarah Henderson, who chaired the inquiry, said yesterday the evidence showed some judges had prioritised time with both parents over children's safety.
"No child should be forced to spend time with a proven perpetrator of violence or sexual abuse," she said.
Bravehearts founder Hetty Johnston yesterday demanded a royal commission into the Family Court.
"The child's rights need to outweigh the parents' rights," Ms Johnston said.
"The evidence of the child should be the first priority."