‘We need to do things differently’: What the new family law system will look like following the major court merger

‘We need to do things differently’: What the new family law system will look like following the major court merger

02 August 2021 By Naomi Neilson
Chief Justice Will Alstergren

Come September, the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia will look very different, starting with a faster and less costly family law system. Despite some heavy criticisms from the wider legal profession, Chief Justice Will Alstergren promises that families, victims of family violence and other clients will be better off. 

The newly merged Federal Circuit and Family Court (FCFC) will officially commence its updated operations from 1 September. It promises to begin delivering “modern, transparent and more efficient systems of justice” for parties to get through the family law system as “safely, quickly and fairly as possible” without unnecessary delays. 

Both prior to and after the federal government passed the merger bill, it has been met with criticisms from across the legal profession. Most commonly, the merger has prompted concerns that judges and court staff will face further pressure to meet the new time frame demands despite alternative avenues being available. 

However, the Honourable Chief Justice Will Alstergren said that for decades, people in the legal profession and the wider community have been calling for change and that the court has finally delivered on these requests. The Chief Justice said that in order to fulfil these requests, “it meant… that we need to do things differently”.

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“Since the legislation passed to establish the new court, we have been working tirelessly towards creating the significant and meaningful change to create the best system we can with the resources available to the court. A system of family law justice that so many people in our community have called for,” he said. 

“A system of family law that those who established the Family Court of Australia in 1975 and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia in 1999 envisioned. I understand that the family law system has experienced unacceptable delays for many years, and I am determined to develop a system that the Australian community deserves.”

As part of the changes, the FCFC claims to deliver greater emphasis on encouraging parties to settle their disputes where it is safe to do so, before proceedings are issued and, where proceedings are launched, that parties are aware of the ramifications that it could mean on them and their families. The FCFC said those that do make it to trial will be met with a “modern, transparent” system of justice.  

The court promises to have a “single point of entry and harmonised rules, firms and case management processes” for the first time in 21 years with the aim of simplifying procedures and enabling cases to be moved through the family law system “quickly and fairly with as little detrimental impact on families and children as possible”.

From September onwards, parties will begin at the “First Court event” that is to take place within six to eight weeks of filing. From there, they should be at mediation or dispute resolution within five to six months “before they have spent too much money on costs or have become entrenched in the system”. If they are unable to settle, a trial will commence where possible within the 12 months of the first filing. 

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As part of the changes, the Commonwealth has provided more than $100 million in new funding. This has assisted the court in undertaking an extensive recruitment drive to increase the number of judges to 111, the highest it has ever been.

Also integral to the new case management model will be increased involvement of senior registrars, registrars, and family consultants early in the process to undertake the triage and case management of all matters filed. As far as possible, FCFC will have duty lists conducted by registrars and interim hearings by senior registrars to “alleviate the front-end case management burden” on judges and court staff.

“We will have a system where identifying risk and safety at the very beginning of every case is a priority, where parties will be given ongoing opportunities for dispute resolution where it is safe to do so and, if cases cannot be resolved, it will be listed for a trial before a judge much earlier than previously,” Chief Justice Alstergren said.

‘We need to do things differently’: What the new family law system will look like following the major court merger
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