The NSW government took another step towards equality for same-sex couples, with the lower house passing a bill that aims to give same-sex couples rights to have their property disputes heard by the Family Court.

Under the current system, same-sex and heterosexual de facto couples have their property disputes heard by the state court system, while married couples can use the Family Court. The Family Court, which same-sex couples can use only for disputes involving children, is cheaper, quicker and better equipped for dealing with family breakdown issues.

The Commonwealth Powers (De Facto Relationships) Bill, passed by the state’s lower house this week, seeks to hand over all state powers dealing with relationship break-ups to the federal Family Court.

But the bill is unlikely to be accepted by the federal government, which has control of the Family Court. Federal attorney-general Daryl Williams has said twice previously the Howard government was not interested in including same-sex couples in Family Court matters relating to property disputes.

A spokeswoman for Williams told Sydney Star Observer disputes between same-sex couples were rarely before these courts.

Moreover, she said, The government [did not] believe that homosexual partnerships should be given the same status as marriage, nor as de facto relationships involving a man and a woman.

Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby co-convenor Rob McGrory told the Star the federal government’s refusal to accept same-sex partnerships was basically entrenching inequality.

McGrory said the Rights Lobby supported the referral of authority to the Family Court in principle.

Bligh MP Clover Moore told the NSW lower house on Tuesday night the likely outcome of Williams’s rejection would be same-sex couples using two separate courts -“ the Supreme Court for property disputes, and the Family Court for disputes involving children.

The [state] attorney-general’s office has informed me that if the commonwealth maintains its position, the legal situation will not change for same-sex couples in New South Wales, Moore said.

This will effectively undermine recently achieved equality for same-sex relationships in this state.

State attorney-general Bob Debus, who had given an assurance about his commitment to gay and lesbian rights to the Gay and Lesbian Rights Lobby before entering into the debate, called the federal government’s position almost inexplicable in contemporary society.

While the state government stopped short of saying it would withdraw the bill if the federal government did not back down, it gave an undertaking that same-sex couples would not be worse off in the state system.

We will continue to closely monitor the commonwealth’s response and to lobby the federal government to implement an inclusive and equal scheme. If the present government will not introduce such a scheme, I am sure the next federal Labor government will do so, Debus said.

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