Table of Contents 1. A Win Win Situation for a Child Support Portal 1.1. Attorney General announces multi million dollar FRC contracts 1.2. Need for child support advisory service at FRCs 1.3. In the Best Interests of Children - the Report 1.4. A short history of child support counselling 1.5. The future of child support counselling 1.6. The nature of child support counselling 1.7. The child support portal 1.8. A Typical example 2. Appendix 1 - In the Best Interests of Children 2.1. Extracts 3. Appendix 2 - The Portal Origins 3.1. General 3.2. Professional qualifications 3.3. Summary 1. A Win Win Situation for a Child Support Portal 1.1. Attorney General announces multi million dollar FRC contracts 1.1.1. In late breaking news [April 2006] the Attorney General has just announced that NGOs such as Centacare, Relationships Australia etc have been awarded contracts to operate the first batch of Family Relationship Centres. 1.2. Need for child support advisory service at FRCs 1.2.1. It is obviously anticipated that the main issues with people attending the FRCs will be "parenting" matters, and while it would seem that separating partners without children would not be turned away from the FRCs, it is safe to assume, in my submission, that the vast majority will in fact have children. Of course that leads to the corollary that they will also have some type of "relationship" with the CSA, albeit not a "family" one, and the well known track record of the CSA says that in most cases the relationship may be very hostile [and the hostility based on lack of information on options], at least until the parents receive the benefit of this proposed portal. 1.2.2. That situation then leads to the "intellectually honest" conclusion [to use the popular expression of Walters FM, albeit not plagiarised by Rimmer FM] that the vast majority of those people attending the FRCs will have far more questions about the CSA and CSScheme than about "parenting skills", which they will probably already have, by dint of being parents, or perhaps by virtue of Parenting/Relationship Skills Workshops at RA. 1.3. In the Best Interests of Children - the Report 1.3.1. And it seems my intellectually honest submission is backed up by the Report to Parliament of Professor Parkinson in his "polemic" [the use that other popular expression of Walters FM, albeit not plagiarised by Rimmer FM], In the Best Interests of Children. The references to FRCs are numerous, covering some seven pages and are set out in Appendix 1. However the main issue, by way of summary, is to provide a type of counselling service on child support by the FRCs to enlighten the customers as to the various pathways available under the CSScheme. 1.4. A short history of child support counselling 1.4.1. Part 2 of the Child Support [Assessment] Act 1989 [herein CSAAct] has remained unchanged [and unused] since 1989 and simply states: Part 2-Counselling 17 Court counselling facilities to be made available (1) A parent of an eligible child, or an eligible carer of an eligible child who is not a parent of the child, may seek the assistance of the counselling facilities of the Family Court or a Family Court of a State. (2) The Principal Director of Court Counselling of the Family Court or an appropriate officer of the Family Court of the State must, as far as practicable, make the counselling facilities available. 1.4.2. A short time after, the High Court in Harris & Caladine issued a stern "instruction" to the Family Court of Australia [herein FCA] to "get back to the core business of judging", per Brennan J 23. It is a matter of public notoriety that the Family Court has frequently been embarrassed by a failure of government to provide the resources needed to perform the vast functions expected of the Court under the Act. But the Constitution does not bend to the exigencies of a budget and, if the humanly important problems of familial relations create a mass of controversies justiciable before the Family Court, Justices must be found to hear and determine them. 1.4.3. So with so much pressure to perform to that Act [FLAct] it was not surprising that anyone asking Court Counselling for advice on the CSAAct was simply given the phone number of the CSA who, as we will see, was not keen to fill an advisory role either. 1.4.4. The full court in Beck & Sliwka [a Stage 1 case] made some "statistical" comments on the small number of applications for departure orders [eg Gyselman] to the FCA for Stage 2 parents, concluding that that was probably more to do with lack of information on such pathways rather than satisfaction with the formula, and it would seem such comments [and the lack of availability of advice from Court Counselling] urged Parliament to introduce Part 6A in 1992 [see Dwyer & McGuire], to provide counselling from the CSA itself. 1.4.5. But from day one [see Perryman] the CSA also decided they did not want to perform these "determinations" [as to the parents' chances in a court] and decided to thumb their nose at the Parliament and actually change assessments, as if they were a court, but without any head of power. To try to overcome the illegal nature of this operation by 1999 they actually named Part 6A as Change of Assessment [herein COAT] and rewrote the CSAAct as The Guide. 1.4.6. The courts were aghast and began to "lament" that Parliament had not and would not amend the CSAAct to "make it legal" and by 1994 or so the "point of no return" compensation wise had been reached, so the courts accepted that s 75 was a type of Claytons, back door head of power [even though it was in the wrong Part]. The high court has never been asked the question but there was some unfortunate [for the CSA] obiter in Luton & Lessels to say the CSA got it wrong. So there the matter will rest, with a virtual firewall built to keep the issue out of the high court, and it would seem a gently gently approach via the FRCs to "make the COAT go away". So I am not trying, per se, to introduce controversy into this submission, but merely trying to explain the strategic role the FRCs will play, going forward, to end this embarrassing and potentially very expensive compensation wise aberration by the CSA. 1.4.7. So it is a rather ironic and perhaps Kafkaesque [to use the expression of Raphael FM in G & G] situation that Prof Parkinson suggests in the Report Recommendation 19.6 The Child Support Agency should have a discretion to encourage parties to change of assessment applications to negotiate the issues through a Family Relationship Centre or other mediation or counselling organisation, prior to determining the application. 1.4.8. So such an operation contemplated here [to be built into the CSAAct] would see the FRCs acting exactly as the legislation for Part 6A has always stated, ie a mandatory requirement to get advice before the "higher body" is "seized with power" to hear the case. So the Kafkaesque situation is that had the CSA acted correctly since 1992 there would have been no need for the FRCs in 2006 "advising the advisers". But the main issue is that this new plan will allow the Part 6A to be repealed, going forward, and we are already seeing COAT lawyers being moved across from CSA to become Federal Magistrates 1.4.9. The corollary of that [and the reason I am providing this background] is that firstly the government will be pushing the FRCs very hard in this respect [so as to repeal Part 6A as soon as possible] and secondly that the Child Support Portal which is the subject of this Report provides, inter alia, a fully automated individual report on the Cost of the Children for each case, based on the very same "Henman Study" as used by Prof Parkinson, as explained herebelow. This feature is central to the many instances [see Appendix 1] of the aim to assist parents to make private agreements [of whatever type, including lump sum] for child support. 1.5. The future of child support counselling 1.5.1. It would be stating the obvious to conclude that, faced with the enormity of setting up FRCs to solve "a mass of controversies about the humanly important problems of familial relations" [I do not think the role of FRCs could be better expressed than by Sir Gerald Brennan], a counsellor would love to be able to do as Court Counsellors did in 1989 and simply give the parents the phone number of the CSA. 1.5.2. I have already postulated as to why any FRC doing that might become an EX FRC. But it seems there are legal reasons why CSA can't give advice, reflected by the CSA dropping their former "banner" of Helping Parents to Manage their Responsibilities. Firstly there was no legislative authority to do anything but "assess and collect" back in 1988 and 1989 when the two Acts came to be, and we saw hereabove that any counselling was to come from Court Counselling and not the CSA. Then Part 6A was introduced in 1992 to provide counselling [regarding court applications under Part 7] but as we saw the CSA decided to make that into a type of court, albeit a kangaroo court with no rules of evidence, no access to a lawyer etc. Obviously the CSA can not have their cake and eat it too and having chosen an executive purpose for Part 6A they have surrendered any possibility of then using Part 6A for its intended purpose. 1.6. The nature of child support counselling 1.6.1. The next hurdle facing the FRCs in child support matters, in my submission, is the marked difference between advising parents about Child Matters under Part VII of the FLAct and advising them on child support pathways. Child matters, as vexing as they might be to solve are one dimensional - for example are the children to go to private schools and who will pay? On the other hand child support is extremely complex, whether one is dealing with the formulas [present and proposed] or with the "just & equitable" solution, using the Henman figures as adopted by Prof Parkinson, or simply understanding the legislation itself. In effect we are no longer talking of one dimensional information but "derived" information, to answer the typical "what if" questions that will be posed by the huge tide [perhaps tsunami] of parents about to knock on your doors. 1.6.2. In 8 years as a volunteer worker advising parents on child support matters I have spoken to some 1,500 such people, and it would be a very rare instance where the questions/complaints wound up in less than 30 minutes. In my [intellectually honest] submission that same situation will prevail once the FRCs open their doors. 1.7. The child support portal 1.7.1. The child support portal recommended by this submission takes the INPUT scenario [or they might wish to advance more than one, eg what if either parent has a new child] of the parents, processes it in a very complex custom application [The Family Law Analysis System - FLAS see Appendix 2] and provides the answers to the parents. There are 2 versions of the service at present. Firstly there is the full hard copy service [by post] which I have used for seven years to provide advice to over 400 people. I am not presently suggesting its use by the FRCs, because even the OUTPUT from the computer requires interpretation by a person skilled in the legislation and case law. 1.7.2. Secondly there is the internet/email "cutdown" version which I am recommending - see Appendix 2 for more details. This was introduced on the internet as csacalc.com, two weeks after the release of Prof Parkinson's Report, which was the time it took for me to add the proposed new formula to the FLAS and make that part of the FLAS internet friendly. 1.7.3. Over 1,000 people since then have availed themselves of the free [for a limited time only] service, many of whom are astounded that such a plethora of information should be immediately available when they have read that the new formula is to be delayed for two years "because it will take 2 years for the I.T. Professionals at CSA to do the job". The reason for that difference is explained in Appendix 2. 1.7.4. Basically the portal is initiated by the user accessing the csacalc.com website and entering their details into the INPUT FORM, then clicking the send button. At our end we feed the email contents into the FLAS, generate a results page, convert it to a GIF file, attach it to the return email and generally make a few comments, eg "good luck, you save 40% IF new formula ever comes in". 1.7.5. Please go to www.csacalc.com to see the examples there, and even try out the whole system if you wish. There is no reason why FRCs such as yours could not use the service as is, but we are quite willing to discuss whatever customising options you may wish to include. Do not hesitate to contact me:
email to - firstname.lastname@example.org 1.8. A Typical example 1.8.1. It may be instructive, as well as the reader visiting the csacalc.com site, to offer just one example in this Report. Scott and Karen had recently separated and were keen to explore the options mentioned by Prof Parkinson of a private agreement but first of all were curious about the short and long term implications of the proposed new formula. Scott emailed 2 separate forms to us, the first with Karen's income as zero and the second as $120,000 pa. It was anticipated that Karen would return to the workforce once T reached the age of 6 so any agreement would need to be based on a "just & equitable" amount, juxtapositioning between the two income amounts for Karen as well as between the [new] formula amount and that based on the Henman figures per Prof Parkinson. 1.8.2. Our reply was by a single email but with the results for the 2 different scenarios attached, together with a brief explanation: For scenario #1 on res1059.gif with Karen on zero income the new formula would give 38% saving for starters and 32% overall [because the new formula increases for "teenagers"]. So about $65,000 saving overall. Notice how well the "court method" in blue tracks the new formula, so maybe the professor HAS done what we have been saying for 10 years to base the formula on the PROPER cost of children figures and not the outdated Lovering & Lee. For scenario #2 with Karen returning to work as Peter Costello says there is similar relativity between the new and old formula but with the liability decreased to about one quarter of scenario #1 1.8.3. Scott replied per: Thank you very much for providing this quick and effective service which I found at csacalc.com. Although I am very computer literate, I could find no other suitable calculator through CSA, or through any other web site, and your personalised service was fantastic. We were very interested in coming to a private agreement for child support but we are aware that once the mother returns to work [and she will be on a high income] the appropriate amount of child support would be different. You provided all the answers to our concerns, and I would recommend it to others. 1.8.4. To explain some of the options available via this Portal, the Embediment - Page 8 shows the normal attachment we would send via the present pre-Portal free service. It compares the Present and Proposed formulae [RED and GREEN columns] in the year by year and cumulative graphs 1.8.5. However in this case we had deduced that Scott & Karen may well benefit from the added information of the Henman figures, extrapolated to their case, so we attached the Embediment - Page 9. The additional BLUE columns show a remarkable resemblance between the Henman BLUE columns and the Parkinson GREEN proposed formula [as we mention in our reply to Scott - which we feel sure he emailed in turn to Karen], all this "communication" happening even before the FRCs commence. 1.8.6. The Embediment - Page 10 could also be part of a "custom" Portal, indicating the input data regarding the parents and children as well as the calculated "parenting time", which may be used either officially or unofficially in child support matters. Obviously the well known comment of "lawyers going to court with calculators and not law books" will remain in contact orders but will shift from 30% of nights to 35% of nights. 1.8.7. Finally Embediment - Page 11 shows the individual categories in the Henman Cost of Children Study with CPI rise and fall, precisely set out for the individual scenario. If a child support case was to go to court for a departure from administrative assessment [as per Gyselman guidelines] then it is these figures that one would depose/argue, as has already been the case in numerous matters before the courts.
2. Appendix 1 - In the Best Interests of Children 2.1. Extracts 0.2 Terms of Reference The Terms of Reference provide that the Taskforce, supported by the Reference Group, will: 4. Consider how Family Relationship Centres may contribute to the understanding of and compliance with the Child Support Scheme. 0.8 Helping parents to agree 0.8.1 The role of Family Relationship Centres The new Family Relationship Centres can play an important role in helping separated parents to understand the Child Support Scheme and discuss issues about child support obligations. Group information sessions should draw attention to the flexibility built into the Scheme, in particular through change of assessment applications. Parents should be encouraged also to discuss issues such as paying for childcare costs and plans for future schooling, especially where a private school education was contemplated before separation. Planning for Family Relationship Centres should involve close collaboration with the Child Support Agency and Centrelink, both of which may be able to provide an information and advice service on the premises of the Centre on a regular basis, perhaps once per week or fortnight. They may also be able to provide input to group information sessions. Both agencies have particular experience in being able to provide advice and assistance to people in regional and rural areas who do not have ready access to face-to-face services. This experience should be drawn on in working out how Family Relationship Centres can service regional and rural Australia. Role of Family Relationship Centres Recommendation 19 19.1 The Family Relationship Centres should encourage voluntary agreements between parents on in-kind payments. 19.2 Information sessions and seminars conducted under the auspices of the Family Relationship Centres should provide information on the Child Support Scheme and draw attention to the flexibility provided in the Scheme through the change of assessment process, as well as the possibilities for private agreements and in-kind payments. 19.3 Family Relationship Centres and other organisations providing counselling and mediation services to parents who are negotiating parenting arrangements after separation should encourage parents to discuss child support issues including childcare costs and the future education of the children, especially where a private school education has been contemplated. 19.4 Planning for Family Relationship Centres should involve close collaboration with the Child Support Agency and Centrelink, particularly on ways of serving the needs of regional and rural Australia. 19.5 Organisations selected to run Family Relationship Centres should be encouraged to invite the Child Support Agency, Centrelink, Legal Aid and community legal centres to conduct regular advice and information sessions on the premises of the Centre. 19.6 The Child Support Agency should have a discretion to encourage parties to change of assessment applications to negotiate the issues through a Family Relationship Centre or other mediation or counselling organisation, prior to determining the application. 9.5.3 The costs of child care In order to take account of the costs of child care or income forgone by being out of the workforce to care for young children, the costs of children aged 0-12 have been based upon the research evidence on the costs of 5-12 year-old children. As seen in the previous chapter, these costs are substantially higher than the costs of children aged 0-4 for middle income families.179 In practice, child care costs can vary enormously depending on the location of the child care and whether or not the care is being provided by a commercial provider. Where child care costs are particularly high, as they are in some parts of the country, the parent incurring this cost will be able to apply for a change of assessment to help meet this cost. This is an existing ground for a change of assessment under the Scheme. Parents of young children should also be encouraged to discuss the issue of child care costs when negotiating financial arrangements following separation through Family Relationship Centres or in other ways. 9.7.3 Child support, Family Tax Benefit and conflict about parenting arrangements The Terms of Reference required the Taskforce to consider how the Child Support Scheme can play a role in encouraging couples to reach agreement about parenting arrangements. There may not be a great deal that the Child Support Scheme can do in a positive way to encourage parents to agree on parenting arrangements. The most useful sources of help will naturally come from the new Family Relationship Centres and other government initiatives to extend the services available for counselling and mediation. 9.7.6 Daytime contact Some parents do not have their children overnight often, and may not do so at all, but have extensive daytime contact. The costs incurred for such daytime contact can vary enormously. For a very young child, if visits occur in the primary caregiver’s home or the parent takes the child out in a pram or to a playground nearby, the costs involved in daytime contact may be quite small. Conversely, entertaining an older child for the day may incur substantial expenditure. It is reasonable to give the same allowance for regular contact or shared care to parents with daytime contact, or a mixture of daytime and night-time contact falling short of the requisite level of nights, if a parent can establish that they incur a substantial level of expenditure on the child through day time contact. The applicable test is whether the costs incurred are approximately equivalent to the costs the formula takes as incurred by having the care of the child for at least the minimum number of nights required for regular contact or shared care. The Child Support Agency ought to encourage the parents to reach their own agreement about this, with assistance available from the Family Relationship Centres. The parents are best placed to know what expenditure on the child each typically incurs when the child is residing with them, including matters such as costs of transportation between the two homes, direct expenditure on meals and the costs of entertainment. 9.9 Determining the parenting arrangements Currently, the Child Support Agency is required to make an administrative finding as to the level of care being provided by a parent in order to make a child support assessment. Where parents are in agreement that a particular level of care on the part of each is occurring, an assessment may be made on the basis of the agreed arrangements. However, in some cases the Agency may be placed in a position of having to determine care levels where there is parental dispute as to the level of care actually provided and anticipated to be provided into the future. Where parents are in dispute, Family Relationship Centres will be available to assist them to negotiate parenting arrangements for the children, including the time children will spend with each parent. Family Relationship Centres will also have a role to help where such arrangements break down, or require renegotiation. The ultimate arbiter of disputes as to care arrangements remains courts with family law jurisdiction. Hence, parents with an agreed arrangement will have a parenting agreement setting out their mutual understanding. Where parents have had their dispute resolved in a court, the resulting court order will set out care arrangements. 10.6 Designated payments The Child Support Scheme should be so designed that it encourages appropriate agreements between the parents about how child support should be paid, and the sorts of expenses it will be intended to cover. The Family Relationship Centres will play a significant role here (see chapter 15). 11.5 Reasonable maintenance action Flexibility and more choices need to be built in to the Child Support system to enable parents to agree on their parenting responsibilities following family separation. Currently, the operation of the FTB system is such that parents who seek more than base rate FTB A must apply for child support almost immediately, at a time when little discussion may have occurred between the parents about the parenting arrangements after separation. To give parents more time to adjust to the separation and to discuss a parenting plan, the Taskforce proposes that there should be a moratorium on the requirement to apply for child support (the Maintenance Action Test - or MAT) for 13 weeks. In that period, FTB should be determined as though the MAT has been satisfied. Further discussion on parenting plans is provided in Chapter 15 - Child Support and the Family Relationship Centres. 13.1 The importance of encouraging agreements When relationships break down, parents need to work out a range of issues, in particular, the parenting arrangements, and the division of the property (or debts, as the case may be). It is a fundamental axiom of family law that the best arrangements are those that the parties negotiate for themselves. They are more likely to last where people feel responsible for the choices and compromises that have had to be made. Imposed solutions can breed resentment and dissatisfaction. For that reason, adjudication should always be a last resort. Child support, however, is the one area of family law where there has not been much of a focus on negotiated arrangements and dispute resolution. The child support formula is applied in the great majority of cases. This is not necessarily because parents don’t want to make their own agreements about child support. There are certain restrictions that stand in the way of parents entering into negotiated settlements about child support that depart from the formula. These restrictions arise from the interrelationship between the CSS and FTB. A further problem with the current arrangements about child support agreements is the lack of even the most basic safeguards to ensure that agreements that have long-term financial consequences for the parents and children are freely and fairly made. The law on child support agreements stands in marked contrast to the family law rules on agreements concerning property division and spousal maintenance. The extent of the difference is surprising, for child support agreements dealing with the support of children until 18 may be of much greater financial significance in the long-term than agreements about property. The availability of Family Relationship Centres to provide parents with information, support and guidance when negotiating parenting related issues will provide practical assistance when parents wish to explore an individualised child support arrangement to match their particular circumstances. This then needs to be matched with a system of handling such child support agreements within the CSS, that provides adequate protection for the parents and the child, whilst maintaining the balance between parent and taxpayer contributions. 15 Child Support and the Family Relationship Centres In response to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs Report in 2004,251 the Government decided to establish a system of 65 Family Relationship Centres (FRCs) designed to provide information, advice and dispute resolution to help separating parents reach agreement, including the development of a parenting plan.252 As part of its Terms of Reference, the Taskforce has been asked to consider: o how the Child Support Scheme can play a role in encouraging separating couples to reach agreement about parenting arrangements; and o how FRCs may contribute to the understanding of and compliance with the Child Support Scheme. The first issue has been addressed in particular through the recommendations concerning the recognition of contact in the formula (see Chapter 9) and the related changes to FTB splitting. However, child support issues are also important to consider when negotiating post-separation parenting arrangements, and close collaboration between the Child Support Agency, Centrelink and the FRCs may help parents to work out sustainable parenting arrangements in which the relevant financial issues are properly considered. In this way also, the Child Support Scheme can play a role in encouraging separating couples to reach agreement about parenting arrangements. The FRCs can also play a major role in promoting understanding of and compliance with the Child Support Scheme. 15.1 Interactions between child support, family law and parental conflict There is strong evidence that dealing with separating parents through the legal system alone can entrench conflict, rather than resolve it. A recent UK study253 shows that, unless the underlying reasons for parental conflict are addressed, the expectation that parents should agree over their parenting arrangements following family separation is unlikely to be fulfilled. This is mainly because the legal system cannot easily deal with the essentially non-legal problems associated with disputes over children.254 Issues with the family law system and the Child Support Scheme featured prominently in the submissions provided to the House of Representatives Inquiry. In their decision-making, neither the courts with family law jurisdiction nor the Child Support Agency (CSA) can take into consideration the underlying reasons for conflict between separating parents. Conflict between separated parents is often exacerbated by interaction with the family law system and the Child Support Scheme. The Family Relationship Centres (FRCs) offer a new and different way of helping parents to resolve these conflicts. Managing the difficult transition from parenting together to parenting apart is a critical time to help parents focus on the needs of their children. FRCs can assist families to reduce long-term conflict and establish sustainable post-separation parenting arrangements. They will also provide valuable support to a range of proposed reforms that the Taskforce is recommending for the Child Support Scheme. 15.2 The role of Family Relationship Centres The FRCs will be highly visible and accessible to the public, thereby encouraging families to use them for relationship and separation issues. FRCs will be an early intervention initiative to support intact families experiencing relationship difficulties. They will also be well positioned to provide relationship education, for example, through parenting seminars. FRCs will also play a support and counselling role for parents going through separation, with the goal of helping parents to work out post-separation parenting arrangements and to focus upon the children’s needs. In addition, they will be able to provide initial information to separating parents about child support and ways that Centrelink can assist them. The FRCs will provide both an information and referral service and an intake assessment process. FRCs will be an integral part of the Family Relationship Services Program and a "gateway" to many other services that can assist them to resolve the issues between them. This includes the family law system, if a legal intervention is the most appropriate means of resolving the issues. Desirably, many parents who cannot resolve their disputes immediately will go on to other kinds of services rather than going to courts. These include continuing efforts at mediation, seeking legal advice about issues, or going to other appropriate services such as anger management courses, drug and alcohol programs, and financial counselling. The Taskforce expects that FRCs will help achieve a change in the pathways separated couples take after separation. A UK study in 1999 found that the majority of people experiencing family or relationship difficulties chose to visit a solicitor. The same is true for Australia, where a great many people visit a solicitor before any other professional about separation matters. This can have the unfortunate effect of entrenching adversarial attitudes, depending on the approach taken by the solicitor. While many parents may still wish to seek legal advice at some stage in working out the postseparation parenting arrangements, the FRCs will offer another pathway for assistance. In particular, when all 65 centres have been established, they will offer a readily available source of free advice and assistance to the majority of the Australian population. Parents will be encouraged to make contact with them as a first step towards negotiating the post-separation parenting arrangements and the related financial issues. Outcomes for parents and their children are generally substantially better where parents can reach agreement, through parenting plans, for example, rather than having arrangements imposed upon them by courts. FRCs will provide mediation services to help parents reach agreements. FRCs will not only have a pivotal role in alternative dispute resolution in the aftermath of separation. They will also have a role in dealing with ongoing conflicts between the parents. Where entrenched conflict makes resolution within the centre unlikely, FRCs may refer the family to the Contact Orders Program, or to other specialist Family Relationship Service Program providers. While parents cannot be ordered to use these programs (only a court can do that), they will be strongly encouraged to do so as a better way of dealing with the issues than going to court. 15.3 How Family Relationship Centres may contribute to the understanding of and compliance with the Child Support Scheme 15.3.1 An educational role The educational role of the FRCs is particularly important in terms of the way in which FRCs may contribute to parents’ understanding of the Child Support Scheme, and therefore promote voluntary compliance. The information sessions and other educational programs of the FRCs should explain in outline about the Child Support Scheme, the basis on which child support obligations have been calculated and the way in which regular contact and shared care are dealt with in the formula. Initial information sessions do not need to give detailed information - that is perhaps best done through Child Support Agency staff offering special information sessions or through legal advisers. However, material on child support should be included in the general information sessions about post-separation parenting. Explanation should be given about how it is that the government seeks to protect children from the reduced living standards flowing from separation in a way that is as fair as possible to both parents. In particular, if parents can be helped to understand that the formula is based on the amount that each parent would be likely to spend on child-related expenses if the parents were together, some of the controversy about child support may be reduced. Specific provision of information to parents about their child support obligations and entitlements should include highlighting of areas where the scheme has considerable scope for parental agreement, and the tailoring of child support arrangements. Parents considering substituting their own agreed child support for the formula outcome need a good understanding of the likely consequences, in terms of both child support outcomes, and FTB interactions (as discussed in Chapter 13). The reasons for change of assessment (as described in Chapter 12) should be made known, so that parents can use the information in their negotiations. There will be more freedom to make lump sum child support arrangements under Taskforce proposals (discussed in Chapter 14). If a non-resident parent is concerned about whether the child support will be utilised to meet the expenses of raising the child, or would particularly like child support payments to be used for particular purposes, then the parents ought to be encouraged to agree about some in-kind payments. Importantly, the extent to which both parents consider that expenses such as fees for extra-curricular activities, haircuts and educational costs should be credited against a formal child support assessment can be agreed. FRCs have the potential to streamline and tailor the provision of information to parents, promoting a greater understanding of child support and, by making opportunities available to parents to become involved in their child support arrangements, including both the amount and use of payments, improve compliance and overall satisfaction. Recommendations 19.1 and 19.2 19.1 The Family Relationship Centres should encourage voluntary agreements between parents on in-kind payments. 19.2 Information sessions and seminars conducted under the auspices of the Family Relationship Centres should provide information on the Child Support Scheme and draw attention to the flexibility provided in the Scheme through the change of assessment process, as well as the possibilities for private agreements and in-kind payments. Recommendation 19.3 Family Relationship Centres and other organisations providing counselling and mediation services to parents who are negotiating parenting arrangements after separation should encourage parents to discuss child support issues including childcare costs and the future education of the children, especially where a private school education has been contemplated. 15.4 Collaboration between Family Relationship Centres, the CSA, Centrelink and other organisations The majority of separated parents who are CSA clients also deal with Centrelink. The two agencies perform different but complementary functions, and parents need information and support from both to fully understand their financial situation. Centrelink and the CSA already have a close working relationship and refer parents to each other’s services. Both agencies also refer to other government and non-government agencies within the community on a regular basis. The FRCs will have an important role in providing initial information and advice to people who may not have an understanding of the range of services available to assist them in the transition to post-separation parenting, including child support. In response to a request by the Taskforce for information on how CSA and Centrelink can work with FRCs, both agencies have committed to working closely with FRCs. The CSA and Centrelink have advised that they are keen to support FRC staff working with parents. The Taskforce supports Centrelink’s and the CSA’s view that this could contribute to improving compliance with the Child Support Scheme and assist with determining FTB entitlement especially in regard to child support exemptions. The Taskforce believes that CSA and Centrelink are well placed to support FRCs to work with separating families and to assist parents to establish parenting plans. Both agencies are keen to be involved in developing services in a range of ways, balancing the needs of parents and children and the efficient use of resources. Other possibilities include: o Centrelink staff located in FRCs could have on-line access to the Centrelink computer system and provide real time information and processing. CSA uses tax data systems and due to security issues has no remote access to their computer system. CSA has an internet based child support calculator which is widely used in the community sector now to inform clients of the impacts of their decisions and could be accessed from FRCs; o using telephone technology to make ‘warm transfers’ between agencies to support FRC staff dealing with a range of issues for parents; o having Centrelink and CSA staff conduct training and information sessions for FRC staff; o availability of ‘hotline’ telephone support to FRC staff if Centrelink and/or CSA staff are not present in person; o sharing of information regarding complex cases with families already known to either or both agencies, as appropriate within the context of privacy legislation; o using an interagency joint case management approach for parents with very complex issues. This approach is being trialled now between CSA and the Family Court, and is used by Centrelink as part of their interventions with families; o utilisation of national strategies already developed by Centrelink and CSA on domestic and family violence to assist in early identification and service delivery responses by all agencies; o using remote servicing options such as Centrelink’s network of social workers based in Community Support and Call Centres to support families in rural and remote locations; o regular exchange of information between FRC staff and Centrelink and CSA staff to identify issues affecting parents in the local area and provide timely and appropriate responses; o provision of Centrelink and CSA information products in FRCs; and o regular sharing of best practice to enhance national service delivery. The Taskforce believes that the more FRCs can be integrated appropriately within the service environment of Centrelink and the CSA and network with other family relationship services, the more families will benefit from services that address their needs, both before and after separation. Planning for FRCs should involve close collaboration with both the CSA and Centrelink. Both agencies have particular experience in being able to provide advice and assistance to a range of diverse groups who do not have ready access to face-to-face services, including families living in rural and remote areas, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, families from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds and people with a disability. Many families and individuals may fall into more than one of these groups, creating multiple disadvantages when accessing services. The Taskforce considers that establishment of a ‘virtual’ FRC through telephone, website and video conferencing capabilities would have special benefit for servicing families with special needs or who are too remote to access face-to- face services. The Centres could facilitate the referral of clients directly with Centrelink, CSA or the other Family Relationship Service Program service providers. Experience shows that clients who are put into direct contact with a service at the time of the referral are more likely to follow through with the referral. Recommendation 19.4 Planning for Family Relationship Centres should involve close collaboration with the Child Support Agency and Centrelink, particularly on ways of serving the needs of regional and rural Australia. Centrelink and CSA are not the only organisations that may be able to work collaboratively with the FRCs. The interactions between family law, Government family payments and child support are intricate and complex. It would not be expected that FRCs would themselves have available expertise in all relevant areas. The FRCs should take advantage of such assistance and government and community based sources of legal advice to make opportunities to receive specialist advice more accessible to parents using the FRCs. Recommendation 19.5 Organisations selected to run Family Relationship Centres should be encouraged to invite the Child Support Agency, Centrelink, Legal Aid and community legal centres to conduct regular advice and information sessions on the premises of the Centre. 15.5 Family Relationship Centres and Change of Assessment FRCs will be available to separated families to help reduce ongoing conflicts and difficulties emerging as their circumstances change. This availability should extend to difficulties with broader parenting responsibilities, particularly including child support arrangements. Mediation services should be available to assist with any areas of re-negotiation of child support agreements or payment arrangements. In addition, to promote better outcomes, FRCs could also play a role in the existing processes within the Child Support Scheme to vary assessments. Currently, a very small proportion of change of assessment applications made to CSA are settled by parents without the need for the Senior Case Officer to make a determination256. Some proportion of parents may have entered into an agreement, varying their child support based upon change of assessment grounds, although without actually making the application. Although not appropriate for every case, alternative dispute resolution ought to be as much a feature of the change of assessment process as any other family law dispute. The CSA should have the discretion to encourage separated parents to negotiate the often contentious issues around change of assessment applications through a FRC or other mediation or counselling organisation, prior to determining an application. Recommendation 19.6 The Child Support Agency should have a discretion to encourage parties to change of assessment applications to negotiate the issues through a Family Relationship Centre or other mediation or counselling organisation, prior to determining the application. 17.2.3 An Alternative Procedure In discussing what process would be most appropriate, all reports have emphasized the importance of providing an expeditious, less formal and less expensive procedure. A recent paper, "External Review of Child Support Agency Decisions: The Case for a Tribunal"265 puts a case for review of child support decisions by the Social Security Appeals Tribunal (SSAT). The paper argues that SSAT members already have some expertise in child support matters. Appellants to the SSAT currently comprise income support and family payment recipients, many of whom are also clients of the CSA. Given the significant interrelatedness of child support with social security, particularly FTB, the conduct of reviews by members with expertise in both areas may improve the quality of decisions. Although it may be necessary to make minor adaptations to the Tribunal’s procedure to handle child support matters, the paper concludes it is well-suited to take on this jurisdiction. Currently, a parent who appeals to a court must bring their action against the other parent in an adversarial process. The legislation makes the carer and liable parent, rather than the Registrar, parties to the appeal.266 The House of Representatives Standing Committee on Family and Community Affairs was particularly swayed by evidence before it in the family law context that the adversarial nature of the legal system as it currently operates amplifies animosity between separated parents, and looked to a more inquisitorial process for determination of disputes. An external administrative Tribunal could review the reasons given for a decision by the Registrar, with the aggrieved parent as the other party, joining the other parent in the child support case if necessary. Inexpensive, expeditious external review in a non-Court based, less adversarial, multi-disciplinary style fits well with the new approach that will unfold with the development of the Family Relationship Centres. There are nonetheless some advantages in allowing the courts to deal with departure applications otherwise than as a review of a tribunal decision. These costs and benefits need to be fully explored, but it was outside of the Terms of Reference for this Taskforce to do so.