Since the 2006 Howard Government amendments to the Family Law Act 1975 the idea of equal time or shared care has gained greater prominence. This has occurred as a result of introducing two sections, the effect of which places the concept of equal time or shared care, at the forefront of the Judge’s reasoning.
In addition to these amendments, inaccurate media reporting has in my view contributed to a higher awareness among litigants as to the availability of equal time and shared care, and more application or consent orders for equal time or shared care.
Family Law Act 1975 – 2006 Amendments
There are two sections that primarily serve to promote the idea of equal time and shared care. They are:
1. Section 61DA – this section introduced a rebuttable presumption that equal shared parental responsibility is in the best interests of a child.
Parental responsibility is the responsibility for making long term decisions for a child, not “equal time” or “shared care”.
This may be open ended but the Family Law Act 1975 definition in section 4 provides some examples of these decisions, including education, health, religion and culture, name and location of the child’s residence that would make it significantly more difficult for a parent to spend time.
As stated above, the presumption is rebuttable (by evidence that equal shared parental responsibility is not in the best interests of a child); and won’t apply where there are reasonable grounds to believe a parent (or person living with a parent) has engaged in abuse or family violence.
Where the presumption does apply, a further section is relevant to the question of equal time or shared care. This section is:
2. Section 65DAA – this section provides for a 3 tiered pathway to be considered by the judge in making a parenting order. The steps are:
a. To consider an order for equal time; and if not reasonably practicable or in the best interests of a child;
b. To consider an order for substantial and significant time; and if not reasonably practicable or in the best interests of a child;
c. To consider what order is in the best interests of a child.
Thus the first consideration is for equal time or shared care but consideration to make this order is subject to it being in the child’s best interests (Section 60CC(2) and (3) contains the best interest factors); and for it to be reasonably practicable for such an arrangement to occur.
The requirement for “reasonably practicability” is important and covers both what is physically practicable and emotionally practicable for a child.
Prior to the above amendments there was little in the way of guidance from the court with respect to equal time or shared care because for many people co-parenting in an equal time or shared care arrangement it had been arrived at by agreement (and thus no judicial determination was warranted).
An example however of a decision prior to the amendments which I consider offers comprehensive guidance on the best interests and reasonably practicability of equal time and shared care is Federal Magistrate Ryan (at the time) in T and N  FMCAfam 222. In this decision Her Honour set out the indicia of factors to be examined by a court where a person seeks equal time or shared care as follows:
- The parties’ capacity to communicate on matters relevant to the child’s welfare.
- The physical proximity of the two households. Are the homes sufficiently proximate that the child can maintain their friendships in both homes?
- The prior history of caring for the child. Have the parties demonstrated that they can implement a 50-50 living arrangement without undermining the child’s adjustment?
- Whether the parties agree or disagree on matters relevant to the child’s day to day life. For example, methods of discipline, attitudes to homework, health and dental care, diet and sleeping pattern.
- Where they disagree on these matters the likelihood that they would be able to reach a reasonable compromise.
- Do they share similar ambitions for the child? For example, religious adherence, cultural identity and extra-curricular activities.
- Can they address on a continuing basis the practical considerations that arise when a child lives in 2 homes? If the child leaves necessary school work or equipment at the other home will the parents readily rectify the problem?
- Whether or not the parties respect the other party as a parent.
- The child’s wishes and the factors that influence those wishes.
- Where siblings live.
My view is if you’re considering seeking equal time or shared care, regard should be given to the above in formulating your proposal. Every case is different however and advice from a Brisbane Family Lawyer will assist you to determine what your best case is.