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Family law experts reject Government’s plan to merge Family Court as Parliament debate looms

By Jack Snape

A proposal to merge the Family Court with the Federal Circuit Court has come under heavy criticism from parliamentarians and the legal profession.

The Government has said the merger, which it aims to progress through Parliament this week, will provide benefits to families going through separation by making it simpler and easier to navigate.

However, independent MP Zali Steggall, a former barrister who worked in the Family Court, said a merger would hurt Australian families.

“The reason it takes so long to go through the Family Court system is they, like so many other departments, are underfunded,” she said.

Ms Steggall said she had been told of Federal Circuit Court judges with workloads of 400 or more cases at one time.

“These people are straining under the load they are having to work under and it is completely misrepresenting to say that this legislation will fix it in any way,” Ms Steggall said.

“All you’re doing is putting two systems into one, you’re losing the specialisation of the Family Court.”

Long-running plans

Attorney-General Christian Porter said the family law system had been “broken” for years.

“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.”

He called out Labor for “unnecessary delays” to the legislation.

Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said debate on the bill in Parliament should not happen until court administrators provided information about the operation of the bill.

He said the changes would fail to provide better outcomes for families.

“This move to effectively abolish the Family Court is a damaging and destructive move which would put Australian families at greater risk at their time of greatest need,” Mr Dreyfus said.

Liberal members of a Senate committee studying the bill recommended it be passed, while Labor and Greens members argued the opposite.

Assuming the ALP remains opposed to the legislation, the Government will need the support of some of the Senate crossbench in order to pass the bill.

Independent senator Rex Patrick said an original version of the bill sought to kill off the Family Court, before it was amended.

“There are still some remnants of the old bill that need to be taken out of the current bill,” he said.

Legal sector criticism

The Family Court was established in 1976.

Its first chief justice, Elizabeth Evatt, said the proposed merger would “lead to undesirable outcomes for children and families”.

“The Family Court was designed purposely as a world-leading, specialist, standalone court to deal only with family law matters, with the support of a dedicated multi-disciplinary team of counsellors and mediators,” she said.

“Its standalone nature is one its greatest attributes, providing protections for vulnerable people in need of family law assistance.”

Law Council president Pauline Wright said the proposal lacked sufficient evidence.

“Claims the merger will allow up to 8,000 cases to be resolved each year cannot be substantiated and are based on PWC’s discredited six-week desktop review,” she said.

The Law Council identified several limitations with the PWC review, including the report itself noting it was done under “time constraints”.

“This is a terrible gamble with the lives of children and families.”

Women’s Legal Services Australia spokesperson Angela Lynch said her organisation’s opposition to the merger was about ensuring the safety and best interests of the child, and the safety of adult victim-survivors of family violence in family law proceedings.

“Retaining and strengthening specialisation in family law and family violence through a standalone specialist family court is essential,” she said.

“Family violence best practice responses worldwide recommend enhancing, not undermining, family violence specialisation in courts.”

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