The new amalgamated court, Mr Porter said, will help Australian families resolve their disputes faster by improving the efficiency of the existing split family law system, reducing the backlog of matters before the family law courts, and driving faster, cheaper and more consistent dispute resolution.
“This significant structural change is designed to dramatically increase the number of family law matters finalised each and every year, and reduce the backlog of unresolved cases on hand at any one time,” he said.
“The purpose of the reform is to ensure Australian families experience shorter waiting times, and a reduction in the potential for conflict caused by prolonged and acrimonious family disputes.”
The new FCFCA will have a single point of entry for all federal family law matters, offering consistency for Australian families needing their disputes dealt with by court proceedings, Mr Porter noted, with one court with one set of rules, procedures and practices.
The new court will be divided into two divisions, each comprising the existing judges of the current Family Court of Australia and Federal Circuit Court of Australia respectively.
In addition, a new Family Law Appeal Division in the Federal Court of Australia will also be established to hear all appeals in family law matters from the newly-created FCFCA.
“As many as 22,000 family law final order cases are filed each year across the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court,” Mr Porter explained.
“Despite the number of cases filed each year remaining relatively static over the past five years, the number of family law matters awaiting resolution has grown from 17,000 to 21,000 and the median time taken to reach trial has grown in both courts, from 10.8 months to 15.2 months in the Federal Circuit Court and from 11.5 months to 17 months in the Family Court.”
Responding to the announcement, Law Council of Australia president Morry Bailes warned greater detail was needed, noting the LCA would support any constitutionally valid reforms which have the effect of finalising more cases in a quicker, less costly fashion.
“We have known for some time that the court system is in crisis, ultimately costing Australian families who have been denied access to justice,” he said.
“Waiting times of up to three years in the Family Court to finalise cases which involve disputes around children and property and allegations of family violence is unacceptable.”
Further investment in the courts – such as this new one – and legal aid services is still required “to deliver the best outcomes” for children and Australian families, Mr Bailes argued.
The Victorian Bar, on the other hand, welcomed the announcement of the proposed restructure of Australia’s family law courts.
“While we are still studying the detail of the proposal, the Victorian Bar welcomes changes which improve access to justice, simplify procedures and reduce waiting times and costs,” said Dr Matt Collins QC, President of the Victorian Bar.
“Members of the public who are dealing with the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court, particularly in relation to custody and access to children, are often experiencing the most difficult and emotional periods of their lives.
Addressing this backlog is indeed what the Attorney-General is aiming to do: “It’s estimated that these reforms will improve the efficiency of the federal family law system by up to a third, with the potential in time to allow up to an extra 8,000 cases to be resolved each and every year,” he said.
“We have a responsibility to ensure that systems in place to assist those families who cannot resolve matters without legal intervention are as efficient as possible and that the system itself does not exacerbate the trauma of family breakup, especially for children.”
Mr Porter’s office noted that no changes will occur for the jurisdiction or operation of the High Court, Family Court of Western Australia, nor any state or territory courts that deal with family law cases.
Attorney General - Canberra
On 30 May 2018, the Attorney-General announced the government’s intention to bring forward legislation for structural changes to the federal courts (excluding the High Court of Australia).
Under the legislation, a new Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (FCFCA) will be established from 1 January 2019 through the amalgamation of the Federal Circuit Court of Australia and the Family Court of Australia.
A new Family Law Appeal Division in the Federal Court of Australia will also be established to hear all appeals in family law matters from the FCFCA (and some appeals from the Family Court of Western Australia).
The reforms will help Australian families resolve their disputes faster by improving the efficiency of the family law system, reducing the backlog of matters before the family law courts, and driving faster, cheaper and more consistent dispute resolution.
This announcement does not have any immediate effect on matters currently before the courts. Transitional arrangements will be put in place for those matters that are before the courts at the time of the commencement of the reforms to minimise any delay or inconvenience to parties.
Secretary Spca saidStructural change is one thing, but the intrinsic issues are far greater than creating a single one-stop shop for Family Law litigation. Those of us in the courts regularly are constantly frustrated by delays, adjournments, vacation of cases due to more urgent cases and a plethora of costly compliance requirements. Some solicitors, acting in the best interests of clients, use the court system as major battlefields to exterminate one parent from the lives of their children and inflict as much delay as possible to bring parents to their knees financially.
Much more urgent reform is required to make any real progress. Family violence, alcohol and other substance allegations plague cases and bring family matters to a crawl. Family reports are often inadequate, provide a minuscule snapshot of time usually so delayed after separation the children hardly recognise the other parent.
Moving the few deck chairs available to a new boat may not give much relief, as the high workload remains. Little effort seems to be applied to increasing the judicial responsibility for Registrars, moving allegations of violence to local courts, and looking at innovative reforms such as a more streamlined and agile Tribunal process similar to the NSW Workers Compensation Commission, The Land and Environment Court and Guardianship Tribunal.