Landmark Family Court merger faces dissent
The controversial merger of the specialist Family Court of Australia with the lower-level Federal Circuit Court has reached the next phase as resistance continues to mount across legal bodies along with Labor and the Greens.
Last Friday, 20 November, the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee released its report on the bill to merge the two courts and recommended that it proceed.
The merger – to create the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia – is intended to fix the “broken family law system” and provide “a single point of entry” for the family law jurisdiction and a common set of rules and procedures.
The Federal Circuit Court and Family Court of Australia Bills will merge the two courts into a new single court structure to be known as the Federal Circuit and Family Court (FCFC). Each court will be preserved within that new, single structure, while creating simpler pathways and processes for families using the court system.
Attorney-General Christian Porter said the government would now seek to progress the bills as a priority during the next sitting fortnight.
“Labor has already caused unnecessary delays to this legislation by insisting on a 12-month inquiry and I would now urge them to put politics aside and help us to deliver these important reforms which will provide significant benefits for families going through a separation,” the Attorney-General said.
“Everyone involved in the family law system has known for years that the system is broken and needs to be reformed as a priority.
“Our legislation will simplify the system by creating a single entry point, one set of forms, procedures, rules and practice management styles, making the court process easier to navigate for families and saving them considerable time and money in the process.”
But in the Senate inquiry, which concluded last week, the changes faced overwhelming opposition and resulted in an open letter to the Attorney-General signed by 110 organisations from across Australia.
These include the Law Council of Australia, along with other legal groups, including Women’s Legal Services Australia, Community Legal Centres Australia and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services.
Law Council president, Pauline Wright said, that the report on the merger by government senators is “entirely unsatisfactory because it does not engage in any meaningful way with concerns raised by more than 110 stakeholders who work in the family law system and witness daily, the impacts on children.”
“The Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia Bill 2019 (Cth) would give effect to a proposal announced by Attorney-General Porter in May 2018 to collapse the stand-alone, specialist Family Court into one of Australia’s busiest courts, the lower level generalist Federal Circuit Court, to the detriment of vulnerable families,” she said.
“The merger bill was developed without consultation with court users, most judges or key stakeholders.
“By collapsing the present world-acclaimed stand-alone specialist Family Court into a generalist court, the merger will in effect abolish the Family Court as we know it and harm vulnerable children and families in need of specialist family law assistance.
“Despite this, the merger has been pursued by Attorney-General Porter with flagrant disregard for the concerns raised by Women’s Legal Services Australia, Community Legal Centres Australia, NATSILS, family violence service providers, the legal profession and others about the merger’s risks to families. Those concerns have once again been ignored by the Government in this inquiry.”
LIV family law section chair Nicky Neville-Jones had already stated that the merger is “a quick fix solution” that wouldn’t work with negative implications for Australian families, including the vulnerable, children and victims of family violence.
Labor and the Greens also provided dissenting reports, detailing the under-resourcing of the courts.
It is understood the committee’s chair, Queensland Liberal senator Amanda Stoker, exercised her vote to back the bill with LNP senators Claire Chandler and Sarah Henderson, while Labor’s Kim Carr and Anthony Chisholm and the Greens’ Lidia Thorpe issued dissenting reports.
Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said in a statement the merger plan was “friendless” and “the existence of a stand-alone specialist Family Court is crucial to the well-being of many thousands of Australians, especially young children.”
“Sadly, government senators on the Senate’s Legal & Constitutional Affairs Committee inquiry decided to ignore the overwhelming evidence against the Morrison government’s misconceived proposal,” Mr Dreyfus said.
This comes as debate continues on the reform of Australia’s family law system, which is under much pressure with the added COVID-19 pandemic with some judges understood to be dealing with more than 600 cases.