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Mother vs Father Custody Statistics in Australia

It is a common misconception that in mother vs father custody disputes, Australian courts prefer to grant custody to the mother. While statistics do indicate that the children of separated parents spend the majority of their time with their mothers, this is generally the result of a consensual parenting agreement. This article looks at some of the key statistics on mother vs father child custody in Australia, and discusses the attitude of the courts towards each parent in relation to child custody.

Divorce in Australia

Understanding child custody statistics requires a consideration of the prevalence of divorce and family separation in Australia. One of the most critical events in relation to divorce in Australia was the introduction of the Family Law Act 1975, which replaced the old fault-based divorce system with a system where the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage is the only basis for a divorce. After this legislation was introduced, divorce rates rose, reaching a height in 1980. Despite the lack of stigma around divorce in contemporary society, divorce rates have actually fallen in more recent decades. Forty years ago, 2.7 out of every thousand members of the population divorced every year; by 2018, the crude divorce rate had dropped to just 2 people per thousand.

Custody Law in Australia

In Australia, the Family Law Act 1975 also legislates for the custody of children after family separation. Under this Act, the courts must always proceed in a way that prioritises the best interests of the child. As such, the court does not start from the assumption that children will spend more time with their mother vs their father. It starts simply from the question ‘What is best for this child?’ The courts will consider the child’s views and the nature of the child’s relationship with each parent. The law presumes that a child has a right to a meaningful relationship with both parents and that children must be protected from family violence, harm, and abuse. The court will therefore begin with a presumption of equal shared parental responsibility, but allows for a rebuttal of this presumption in cases where there are family violence or child safety concerns.

Equal parenting responsibility does not necessarily mean that children spend an equal amount of time with each parent. The court must consider whether it is practical or in the child’s best interest for the minor to spend “substantial and significant” time with each of their parents.

Mother vs Father Custody Statistics in Australia

A 2014 survey discovered that the most common custody arrangement is for children of separated parents to spend at least two-thirds of nights with their mothers. This statistic may reflect a pattern of children living with mothers during the school week and spending weekends with their fathers. A much smaller proportion (less than 20%) of children spend every night with their mother and only spend time with their fathers in the day. This arrangement is most common for children under the age of two. Genuinely equal time, where the child spends an equal number of nights with each parent (for instance, alternate weeks), occurs in less than one in ten parenting arrangements. Less than 10% of children have no contact with one of their parents.

Reaching Parenting Agreements

It is a misapprehension that the courts are mostly responsible for parenting arrangements. In fact, only about 3% of separating parents in Australia make their parenting arrangements through the courts. The courts are much more likely to be involved in cases of family violence, child safety concerns, or other complex situations including mental health and substance abuse.

It is more common for separating parents to use a family dispute resolution service or solicitors to reach an agreement – nearly one in five parenting arrangements are facilitated through these services. This means that the great majority of custody agreements are actually arranged by parents without the intervention of the courts or the assistance of a mediator or solicitors.

When courts are involved in ordering parenting arrangements, 45% of court orders do award sole parental responsibility to the mother, vs 11% for sole parental responsibility to the father. But even in cases where the sole parental responsibility is given to one parent, it is still very rare for the court to order that a child has no contact with one parent: out of the 3% of cases that go to court, only 3% of these cases result in an order that stipulates no contact with one parent. In 4% of cases, the court has ordered that the child should only have contact with one parent under supervision.

Armstrong Legal’s family law experts can provide advice about mother vs father custody in light of these statistics. Please call Armstrong Legal on 1300 038 223 or send us an email to make an appointment with one of our friendly, professional family lawyers.

Dr Nicola Bowes

This article was written by Dr Nicola Bowes

Dr Nicola Bowes holds a Bachelor of Arts with first class honours from the University of Tasmania, a Bachelor of Laws with first class honours from the Queensland University of Technology, and a PhD from The University of Queensland. After a decade working in higher education, Nicola joined Armstrong Legal in 2020.

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