157 sign letter opposing controversial Family Court merger

By Emma Ryan|16 February 2021

An open letter to the Attorney-General opposing the merger of the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia has resurfaced on Tuesday – this time updated to include signatories of 157 prominent players within the profession.

Those who have signed the open letter to the Attorney-General represent a range of professionals and community organisations that work with Australian families, including 11 retired Family Court and Federal Circuit Court (FCC) judges, in addition to former chief justices the Honourable Elizabeth Evatt AC and the Honourable Alastair Nicholson AO RFD QC.

The letter, which can be viewed in full below, first made waves in November 2019 by stakeholders who issued serious concerns about the proposed merger, with some citing it would “result in a loss of structural, systemic specialisation and dismantle the appeal division”.

While the bill was opposed by all non-government members of the House of Representatives, including all members of the cross-bench, in December 2020, the open letter continues to gain traction due to it still being before the Senate. As of Tuesday, there are 157 signatories.

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In a combined statement issued to Lawyers Weekly, the Law Council of Australia (LCA), Community Legal Centres Australia, Women’s Legal Services Australia and National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services noted the importance of not losing momentum in opposing a decision that would spark “devastating impacts on families. 

“The Attorney-General’s Department gave evidence to the Inquiry into family, domestic and sexual violence in December 2020 that ‘there hasn’t been a specific study of what impact the merger would have with respect to family and domestic violence issues’, no consultation was undertaken with children’s services, children’s groups or children’s advocates in relation to the merger, and no working group was formed with the Office of Women,” the statement said.

“Stakeholders continue to oppose the bill out of concern the merger will increase cost, delay and stress for families. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Family Court and FCC were facing delays of more than a year’s worth of cases each. Two in three FCC judges already have more than 300 matters in their dockets, some more than 600. The Chief Judge of the FCC has previously indicated that the ideal number should be around 100 each.

“Despite these pressures, the Government increased the FCC’s non-family law jurisdiction in December 2020.

“This coalition of stakeholders calls on the Senate to vote against the merger and protect Australian families from a flawed proposal that lacks any evidential basis and is based on a discredited six-week consultancy report.”

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Commenting further, Law Council president Dr Jacoba Brasch QC said: “As the impacts of the devastating shadow pandemic of family violence experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic continue, now is not the time to proceed with an unnecessary, risky bill that has been opposed by all non-Government members of the House of Representatives.”

Chief executive of Community Legal Centres Australia, Nassim Arrage, noted: The merger would move away from a specialist family court model, exposing survivors of family violence to unnecessary risk, with Women’s Legal Services Australia spokesperson, Angela Lynch AM, adding: “Our opposition to the proposed merger of the family courts is centred on ensuring the safety and best interests of the child and the safety of adult victim-survivors of family violence in family law proceedings. Safety must come first in family law.”

The open letter, in its original form from 11 November 2019:

Dear Attorney-General,

We, the undersigned, are writing to you about the Government’s proposal to merge the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia into a single generalised court: the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia.

Any reform should strengthen a system, not lead to the diminution of specialisation. If the Government’s proposed reforms proceed, we will lose a stand-alone specialist superior family court.

In acknowledging the need to prioritise the safety of children and adult victims-survivors of family violence in the family law system, government commissioned inquiry after inquiry has recommended increasing specialisation in both family law and family violence, including the recent Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry into the family law system.

We believe this should be a Government priority.

We understand and support having a single entry point to the family courts and common rules so the family law system is easier for families to navigate. We understand this is a key reason why the Government is seeking to reform the family courts.

However, there are different ways this can be achieved. And this can be done without abandoning the benefits otherwise available to children and families from a properly resourced and specialised court system.

The Family Court of Australia has said “common rules, forms and complementary case management systems” ... “can be achieved without legislative amendment”.

The Federal Circuit Court of Australia has acknowledged the importance of a single point of entry and common case management system “whether or not the enabling legislative framework is in place”.

Similarly, there are different models for reforming the family courts other than the model proposed by the Government.

The New South Wales Bar Association has proposed keeping the stand-alone specialist superior family court.

Family Court Judges would be in Division 1 of the Family Court of Australia. Federal Circuit Court judges who are hearing family law matters would move across to Division 2 of the Family Court of Australia.

In this way, federal judges hearing only family law matters would be in a single specialist family court offering judicial, social science and other services.

We believe an increase in specialisation in family law and family violence will increase the safety of children and adult victims-survivors of family violence. This is particularly the case for groups that are disproportionately impacted in the family law and family violence systems, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The need for increased specialisation of courts to improve decisions and outcomes for families is supported by the evidence of many inquiries.

We advocate for further discussion of the different options.

We prefer a model that retains a stand-alone specialist superior family court and increases family law and family violence specialisation, such as the proposal by the New South Wales Bar Association. The safety of children and adult victims-survivors of family violence requires increased specialisation. The proposed merger serves only to undermine that important need.

While we support just, quick and cheap access to justice and there is a role for increasing efficiencies within our court systems, this must not come at the cost of the safety of children and adult victims-survivors of family violence. These two important imperatives are not mutually exclusive, and one ought not be abandoned at the expense of the other.

Safety must come first in family law.

We would welcome further consultations on alternative models of structural, holistic reform to benefit children, families and victims-survivors of family violence.

Action can also be taken now to further increase family violence specialisation in the family law system through:

• Introducing effective ongoing court-based family violence risk assessment practices

• Early determination of family violence, and

• Increasing family violence competency of all professionals in the family law system

Yours faithfully,

List of organisations

The full list of 157 signatories are as follows:

1 Dr Merrindahl Andrew, program manager, Australian Women Against Violence Alliance

2 Nassim Arrage, CEO, Community Legal Centres Australia

3 Nerita Waight, co-chair, National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services

4 Members of the National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services Forum

5 Law Council of Australia

6 Sophie Quinn & Amber Russell, co-convenors, Women’s Legal Services Australia

7 The Honourable Elizabeth Evatt AC

8 The Honourable Alastair Nicholson AO RFD QC

9 The Honourable David Collier AM

10 The Honourable Paul Cronin

11 The Honourable Colin Forrest SC

12 The Honourable William Johnston

13 The Honourable Mark Le Poer Trench

14 The Honourable Ian Loughnan

15 The Honourable Peter Murphy

16 The Honourable Nahum Mushin AM

17 The Honourable Stephen O'Ryan QC

18 The Honourable Peter Rose AM QC

19 Giles Coakes

20 ACT Bar Association

21 Brodie Lewis, business manager & Michael Montague, principal solicitor, Albany Community Legal Centre

22 Tara Ward, executive director, Animal Defenders Office

23 Julie Oberin, CEO, Annie North Inc Women’s Refuge and Domestic Violence Service

24 Dr Manjula O'Connor, executive director, AustralAsian Centre for Human Rights and Health

25 Mark Patrick, managing principal solicitor, Australian Centre for Disability Law

26 Dr Cassandra Goldie, CEO, Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS)

27 Professor Jaya Dantas, president, Australian Graduate Women

28 Kerry Weste, president, Australian Lawyers for Human Rights

29 Bonney Corbin, chair, Australian Women’s Health Network

30 Dr Sage Leslie, barrister, Blackburn Chambers

31 Sarala Porter, manager, Blue Mountains Women’s Health and Resource Centre

32 Rachael Field, professor of law, Bond Law Faculty

33 Tracy Phillips, executive officer, Bonnie Support Services

34 Eugene H White, principal solicitor, Brisbane North Community Legal Service

35 Genevieve Bolton, executive director/principal solicitor, Canberra Community Law

36 Committee of the Canberra Region Family Law Professionals Association

37 Tracy MacDonald, CEO, Care Goondiwindi Ltd

38 Tully McIntyre, facilitator, Central Australian Family Violence and Sexual Assault Network

39 Janet Taylor, managing principal solicitor, Central Australian Women’s Legal Service

40 Diverse Women in Law

41 Antoinette Braybrook, CEO, Djirra

42 Gabrielle Borggaard, CEO, Domestic Violence Action Centre

43 Susie Smith, co-chair, Coalition of Women’s Domestic Violence Services of South Australia

44 Tim Leach, executive director, Community Legal Centres NSW

45 Rosslyn Monro, director, Community Legal Centres Queensland

46 Ben Bartl, policy officer, Community Legal Centres Tasmania

47 Jenny Davidson, CEO, Council of Single Mothers and their Children

48 Linda Weatherhead, executive director, Darwin Community Legal Service

49 Susan Crane, executive officer, Dawn House Inc

50 Mirjana Wilson, CEO, Domestic Violence Crisis Service

51 Delia Donovan, CEO, Domestic Violence NSW (DVNSW)

52 Tania Farha, CEO, Domestic Violence Victoria and Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria

53 John Gordon, drug and alcohol counsellor, Drug and Alcohol Clinical Services Northern

54 Belinda Lo, director-legal services/principal lawyer, Eastern Community Legal Centre

55 Arlia Fleming, managing principal solicitor, Elizabeth Evatt Community Legal Centre

56 Alina Thomas, CEO, Engender Equality

57 Janet Wright, CEO, Family Violence Legal Service Aboriginal Corporation (South Australia)

58 Shorna Moore, director of policy and engagement, Federation of Community Legal Centres Victoria

59 Claudia Fatone, CEO, Fitzroy Legal Service Inc

60 Judy McLean, principal solicitor and coordinator, Fremantle Community Legal Centre

61 Brenda Beauchamp, coordinator, Glen Innes & District Community Centre Inc

62 Di Macleod, director, Gold Coast Centre Against Sexual Violence Inc.

63 Zoe Rathus AM, senior lecturer, Griffith Law School

64 Samantha Jeffries, senior lecturer, School of Criminology & Criminal Justice, Griffith University

65 Dr John Hewson, professor, Crawford School ANU and former Liberal opposition leader

66 Jane Hutchison, director, Hobart Community Legal Service

67 Janet Saunders, CEO, Hobart Women’s Shelter

68 Katherine McKernan, CEO, Homelessness NSW

69 Jonathan Ward, director, HUB Community Legal

70 Sarah Rodgers, manager & principal lawyer, Hume Riverina Community Legal Service

71 Bronwyn Ambrogetti, managing solicitor, Hunter Community Legal Centre

72 Sally Stevenson AM, general manager, Illawarra Women’s Health Centre

73 Jane Brock, executive officer, Immigrant Women’s Speakout Association Inc

74 Ali Mojtahedi, principal solicitor, Immigration Advice and Rights Centre

75 Jessica de Vries, acting co-CEO, Inner Melbourne Community Legal

76 Mary Wignell, department manager, Ironbark Aboriginal Corporation

77 Janene Cootes, executive officer, Intellectual Disability Rights Service

78 Caroline de Costa AM, professor, obstetrics and gynaecology, James Cook University College of Medicine

79 Biljana Milosevic, director, Jannawi Family Centre

80 Tim Graham, executive director, JusticeNet SA

81 Mary-Anne Philip, principal legal officer, Katherine Women’s Legal Service

82 Emma Golledge, director, Kingsford Legal Centre

83 Nicky Snare, CEO, Launceston Community Legal Centre

84 Rachael Natoli, CEO/Founder, Lokahi Foundation

85 Nicole Yade, general manager, Lou’s Place

86 Robert Pelletier, executive officer, Macarthur Legal Centre

87 Jamal Hakim, managing director, Marie Stopes Australia

88 Belinda Fehlberg, professor of law, Melbourne Law School

89 Jane Titterington, principal solicitor, Mid North Coast Community Legal Centre

90 Rachel Spencer, associate professor & director, Monash Law Clinics - Clayton & Melbourne

91 Marie Segrave, associate professor Monash University/deputy director, Monash Migration and Inclusion Centre/Researcher, Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre

92 Kris Newton, manager, Mountains Community Resource Network

93 Maha Abdo OAM, CEO, Muslim Women Australia

94 Narrandera domestic violence committee

95 Christine Ross, Acting CEO (2019) and Sandra Creamer, CEO (2021), National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women's Alliance

96 Aloma Fennell, president, National Older Women’s Network Inc

97 New South Wales Bar Association

98 Joanna Quilty, CEO, NSW Council of Social Service (NCOSS)

99 Lizette Twisleton, interim director practice and programs, No to Violence

100 Mandy Thompson, CEO, North Queensland Domestic Violence Resource Service

101 Ken Beilby, principal solicitor, Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre

102 Anne Lewis, director, North Queensland Women's Legal Service

103 Tessa Snowdon, policy officer, Northern Territory Council of Social Service (NTCOSS)

104 Marianne Ibrahim, domestic and family violence manager, Open Support

105 Michael Taljaard, principal solicitor, Peel Community Legal Service Inc.

106 Jackie Galloway, CEO, Peninsula Community Legal Centre

107 Jane Gold, manager, Penrith Women’s Health Centre

108 Jeff Smith, CEO, People with Disability Australia

109 Rachel Reilly, executive director, Project Respect

110 Terry Slevin, CEO, Public Health Association of Australia

111 Karen Willis, executive officer, Rape & Domestic Violence Services Australia

112 Sarah Dale, centre director & principal solicitor, Refugee Advice & Casework Service

113 Gideon Lim, Men’s Family Advocacy and Support Service (FASS) worker Sydney Family Court, Relationships Australia

114 Carol Musgrave, family support co-ordinator, Richmond Community Services Inc

115 Gai Walker, managing director, SCALES Community Legal Centre

116 Rebecca Edwards, principal lawyer, Seniors Rights Victoria at COTA (Victoria)

117 Lindy Edwards, coordinator, Sera’s Women’s Shelter, Queensland

118 Leanne Melling, coordinator, Sex Worker Outreach Program - Northern Territory (SWOP-NT)

119 Accalia Dalmore, representative member, sex worker reference group - Northern Territory (SWRG-NT)

120 Justine O'Reilly, principal solicitor, Shoalcoast Community Legal Centre

121 Sharon Millett, senior case manager, Shoalhaven Women’s Resource Group Ltd

122 Catherine McMorrine, chair, South Australian Council Community Legal Services

123 Yvette Vignando, CEO, South West Sydney Legal Centre

124 Tasmanian Aboriginal Legal Service

125 Cathy Crawford, coordinator, The Women’s Centre

126 Vicki Johnston, manager, The Deli Women & Children’s Centre

127 Carol Child, executive manager, The Humanitarian Group

128 Caitlin Weatherby-Fell, a/managing solicitor, Top End Women’s Legal Service Inc.

129 Tracey Booth, associate professor, faculty of law, University of Technology Sydney

130 Miranda Kaye, senior lecturer, faculty of law, University of Technology Sydney

131 Dr Jane Wangmann, senior lecturer, faculty of law, University of Technology Sydney

132 Nerita Waight, CEO, Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service

133 Kirstin, co-ordinator, Warrawee Women’s Shelter

134 Charlotte Young, CEO, Warrina Domestic and Family Violence Specialist Services Co-operative Ltd

135 Catherine White, acting executive officer, WASH House Inc

136 Katherine Boyle, executive director, Welfare Rights Centre

137 Julie Oberin, national chairperson, WESNET

138 Patrick O'Callaghan, principal solicitor, Western NSW Community Legal Centre

139 Louise Coady, principal solicitor, Western Sydney Community Legal Centre Limited

140 Alex Haynes, CEO, Whittlesea Community Connections

141 Christine Robinson, coordinator, Wirringa Baiya Aboriginal Women’s Legal Centre

142 Annabelle Daniel OAM, CEO, Women’s Community Shelters

143 Kedy Kristal, policy officer, Women’s Council for Domestic and Family Violence Services Western Australia

144 Emma Davidson, convenor, Women’s Electoral Lobby Australia

145 Denele Crozier AM, CEO, Women’s Health NSW

146 Jo Flanagan, CEO, Women’s Health Tasmania

147 Larissa Andelman, president, Women Lawyers Association of NSW

148 Claudia Maclean, principal solicitor, Women’s Legal Centre (ACT & Region)

149 Janet Loughman, principal solicitor (2019), Philippa Davis, principal solicitor (2021), Women’s Legal Service NSW

150 Angela Lynch AM, CEO, Women’s Legal Service Qld

151 Zita Ngor, CEO, Women’s Legal Service South Australia

152 Yvette Cehtel, CEO, Women’s Legal Service Tasmania

153 Helen Matthews, director – legal & policy, Women’s Legal Service Victoria

154 Carrie Hannington, senior executive officer, Women’s Legal Service Western Australia

155 Milenka Vasekova, program manager, Migrant Women's Support Program, Women Safety Services South Australia

156 Bobbie Trower, senior manager of advocacy, YWCA Australia

157 Tulika Saxena, gender and domestic violence specialist, YWCA Canberra

157 sign letter opposing controversial Family Court merger
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