THE Federal Magistrates Court is facing abolition at the end of the year as part of an overhaul of the federal court system.The 50-plus members of the court have been told a merger is likely - but have been assured their jobs are safe until they reach the mandatory retirement age of 70.
The Australian also understands the court considers two matters "non-negotiable" - that magistrates be rebadged as judges and that pay be 90 per cent of the stipend for Federal Court and Family Court judges.
The current figure is 78 per cent, with FMC judicial officers paid $249,490, while other federal judges get paid $319,000.
The review of federal courts, ordered by Attorney-General Robert McClelland and being carried out by KPMG consultant Des Semple, is not due to report until the end of next month.
Mr Semple was asked to work on "a more integrated family law system", and court officials believe he will recommend the FMC be split in two and serve as branches of the Federal Court and the Family Court.
Three options are being discussed - the creation of a Federal Courts Authority, giving the Magistrates Court standing similar to a District Court and the mergers with other courts.
The review is also examining how best to utilise scarce resources and settle the tensions between the Family Court and Federal Magistrates Court.
While Mr Semple is yet to discuss his plans with Mr McClelland, it is understood that any new structure must fall in line with the Rudd Government's spending restraints and be revenue neutral. The FMC's insistence on pay will pose problems, but the court believes there are other potential savings through court mergers that might allow that criteria to be met.
It also believes all family law matters should commence in the FMC which would allow the Family Court to become more of an appellate court.
The chief justice of the Family Court, Diana Bryant, and the chief magistrate of the FMC, John Pascoe, told a Family Law conference in Adelaide two weeks ago they accepted change was "inevitable".
"I think both courts are now looking forward to a thorough consideration of how the system can best operate for the benefit of the litigants and a hopeful end to the resourcing tensions inherent in the existing arrangements," Chief Justice Bryant said.
The Family Court will receive $131 million in funding for 2007-08, a figure that matches the total for both the Federal Court ($78 million) and Federal Magistrates Court ($53 million).
The Family Court is providing the magistrates court with free services worth $13.57 million this financial year, but Mr Pascoe has consistently argued for more direct funding to his court.
The "tensions" have led to almost juvenile spats between members of the two courts.
In Adelaide, a Family Court judge ordered FMC staff out of tea rooms for stealing "Family Court teabags" and there was an attempt to have the entire magistrates court staff banned from the Family Court floor because they were a "security risk".
Requests from the FMC to use vacant Family Court rooms in Sydney and Brisbane have been refused. When an Adelaide magistrate ignored such a refusal and moved into a vacant office, his computer was disconnected by Family Court staff.
"I think we should see this as an opportunity to improve the system and the appropriate status of each of the courts, but particularly the Federal Magistrates Court," Chief Justice Bryant said.
Mr Pascoe pointed out that 79 per cent of all family law filings are in the FMC, up from 60 per cent two years ago. He told the conference he took exception to the name of the court and the title of "magistrate". "The name is misleading and in some communities unacceptable to litigants who associate magistrates courts with criminal proceedings."
He noted the New Zealand District Court has a wide jurisdiction in family law with appeals heard by a superior court.
"As the Federal Magistrates Court grows it would seem appropriate for a similar approach to be considered in family law and general federal law. "This would provide flexibility whilst recognising expertise."