What is the Lighthouse Project?
The Lighthouse Project is an innovative response to calls for a national family violence risk assessment process, together with specialised pathways for high-risk cases in the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia. It is a welcome plan for those members of our community most at risk.
- Where parties have experienced family violence or other safety concerns, the pilot program aims to help parties navigate the family law court system and create better outcomes.
- Through a tiered risk assessment process, the family law courts aim to identify and manage any safety concerns of the parties before diverting the matter to an appropriate case management pathway.
- The aim is to improve the safety of parties and children within family law proceedings by implementing better processes for recognising and responding to safety concerns.
The initial Government funding will support the pilot project in the Brisbane, Adelaide and Parramatta court registries. The courts aim to secure ongoing funding for nationwide expansion.
What does the Lighthouse Project involve?
The Lighthouse Project essentially comprises four stages:
1. Screening: On filing a court application (or responding court application) for a parenting order, parties will complete a confidential questionnaire through a specifically developed and secure online platform known as ‘Family DOORS Triage.’ The questionnaire can be accessed on any device. Parties’ responses are used only for risk screening, referrals to health support and to identify suitable case management.
2. Triage: Cases will be assessed by family counsellors and directed to tailored case management pathways. Counsellors will consider a range of common safety risks such as family violence, mental health issues and drug or alcohol misuse. Counsellors will also review these risks and triage matters into high, medium and low risk case management pathways. Where parties require greater support, the option exists for appointments with family counsellors for further referrals and safety measures.
In relation to the risk categories:
- High Risk: Cases will be referred for immediate action through video conference, telephone or face-to-face appointment with family counsellors. Counsellors will then provide a tailored follow up involving detailed risk assessment, safety and wellbeing plans and service referrals. This process is entirely confidential.
- Medium Risk: Cases will be offered online safety planning and service referrals. Depending upon the family’s individual circumstances, a range of suitable case management pathways will be considered.
- Low Risk: Cases may be targeted for court-ordered family dispute resolution in order to resolve disputes in a cost-effective and efficient manner.
3. Case Management: Registrars, family consultants and support staff with family violence and family safety risk expertise will support the matter through the relevant case management pathway.
4. Evatt List: Where families are identified as at high-risk of family violence and other family safety concerns, they will be diverted to the specialist ‘Evatt List.’ The Evatt List support team is judge-led and has specialised training and experience working with families where high-risk safety issues are identified. The focus is on early information gathering and intervention.
In addition, the courts have outlined key aspects of the approach to family violence matters, which encompass:
- Information sharing (among police and child welfare agencies located in many court registries assists timely and effective family safety risk assessment).
- Electronic hearings (to address parties’ safety concerns around physical attendance at court, as well as increasing access to justice for parties’ living in regional and remote locations).
- Harmonisation of Court Rules (the ‘Notice of Child Abuse, Family Violence or Risk’ simplifies the process and allows both parties and the courts to obtain holistic information about various risk types).
- Quick responses to priority cases (will be ensured by the launch of an expanded family law list).
What is the status of the Lighthouse Project?
The courts are now currently in the process of:
- testing the Family DOORS Triage application and finalising process manuals;
- finalising processes and procedural documents for support staff\;
- drafting the Evatt List protocols and guidance; and
- engaging with key stakeholders.
The courts will provide further updates in the lead up to the project’s commencement.
The Attorney-General has also recently announced that legislation has been introduced in the Parliament to ensure that the information gathered in the screening process is both confidential and inadmissible.
The author is grateful for the assistance of Robert MacFarlane in the preparation of this article.