Canberra, Australia

Courting Justice: Families and The Law in Australia

Family Court of Australia

May 2, 2014

Demystifying the judicial system for newcomers through community-led education strategies empowers new and emerging communities.

canberra“We see our families in so much trouble with the law but no one stops to say this is what is going on. If only we can tell our community that there are things we can do with law, people then we won’t be so afraid of what is happening.” —   A South Sudanese community leader

For most people, navigating through the court system and judicial process can be perplexing in the best of times. But as a refugee or an immigrant there is the added stress of learning new local customs, culture and language, not to mention how the country’s many institutions function.

Moving to a new country, especially under trying or tragic circumstances, can place enormous stress on families as different family members struggle to communicate in a new language, seek work and schooling and go about daily business with few social networks outside the family unit.

The strain on family relations during this time can be profound and sometimes leads to domestic violence, family breakdown and child protection concerns. This, in turn, can bring about additional distress when police or government officials intervene in what may be perceived as private family matters.

Recognizing this, as part of the Living in Harmony program (now the Diverse Australia program), the Family Court of Australia partnered with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to fund an initiative to develop community-driven education strategies around the Australian legal system , and particularly, family law, for new and emerging communities.

A targeted approach

Established over a period from 2003 to 2006, and encapsulated in the 2008 report (PDF), the Living in Harmony partnership aimed to:

  • Develop and strengthen relationships between new and emerging communities and the Family Court;
  • Foster cross-community relations between new and emerging communities about matters of families and the law; and
  • Examine how the Family Court could contribute to community harmony by strengthening community leadership, family units and inter-community relationships in new and emerging communities.

Working and building trust was essential for the program’s success. Developed with direct input and partnership with representatives of Afghan, Eritrean, Ethiopian, Iraqi, Somali and Sudanese communities, four separate pilot community education strategies were developed, implemented and evaluated. Over four sites, more than 45 government and non-government agencies were involved and more than 1500 community participants attended consultations and community education workshops.

Bespoke models

Following these extensive consultations in each pilot area, a variety of approaches targeted at particular communities were used to cover a range of subjects. In Melbourne, for example, ethno-specific community organizations partnered to deliver community education sessions organized by bilingual educators and presented in their own language. Court staff attended as a “resource” for the bilingual educators.

In Parramatta, a multi-agency approach with community facilitators addressed the safety, well-being and long-term successful settlement of children and their families. They focused on the concept of “the best interests of the child,” which is enshrined in Australian law through the Family Law Act 1975.

The Tasmanian approach involved a number of family-related service providers using playback theatre – spontaneous, improvised theatre created through collaboration between performers and audience where someone shares a life story, chooses actors to play the different roles, and then watches as their story becomes a conversation that gets people thinking and talking about the issues at hand.

The Adelaide approach with Somali, Sudanese, Ethiopian and Eritrean communities used storytelling and role play, methods traditionally used to pass on living skills and cultural and social histories in these communities. A range of government and non-government organisations were involved.

Success and Recognition

Strong relationships were forged among individuals and between organizations. New and emerging communities gained improved knowledge of their own rights and responsibilities as well as an understanding and appreciation of the family court and judicial systems in Australia.

Outcomes for the Family Court have been equally profound, especially in terms of developing deeper cultural competencies. Knowledge of how new and emerging communities perceive the Family Court and a better understanding of their desire to settle into Australian life has been incorporated into the day-to-day business of the Court.

The Family Court is more able to work towards mutual understanding and benefit. Relevant information is also shared with other organisations in order to help facilitate culturally responsive and appropriate services in other sectors as well.

The Family Court was a 2014 winner of Migration Council of Australia’s (MCA) Migration and Settlement Award.

Making it Work for You:

  • Know what you are working with, and where the gaps are – start with an audit, develop a plan and ensure that training and support are provided  to ensure effective implementation
  • Different communities may require different approaches and solutions. Work collaboratively and inclusively, in genuine partnership, and at multiple levels to include a variety of perspectives and contributions that will make the programme robust
  • Don’t be afraid to use a variety of techniques for different situations and groups. Be sure that these are developed in consultation with community members. This is a two way learning process, with expertise and challenges on all sides.
  • Ensure that findings and successes are practically incorporated into the daily application of the judicial systems and processes.
  • Consider, appreciate and commit to five broad factors: context, catalyst, communication and engagement, capacity and change.