Australia’s Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, has endorsed legislation which will abolish Australia’s family courts.
The Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia Bill will merge Australia’s existing Family Court network with the Federal Circuit Court, to create a single point of entry for family law cases and which will work under a universal set of rules, procedures, and practices.
The merger of the two courts will create one court, called the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia.
The aims of the merger are to ensure that Australian families have a consistent and clear pathway to use, to enable their family law disputes to be heard in the federal courts; to improve the efficiency of the court system; and ensure outcomes for families are timely, well informed and cost effective.
A ‘division one’ with family court judges and a specialist appeals court will also be created under the new proposals.
The bill is now set to pass after winning support from independent senator Rex Patrick, who has said the changes must include the retention of a minimum number of family law judges.
Opponents of the bill, which include law societies, legal centres and women’s legal support groups say the court merger will jeopardise the outcomes of family law cases and place victims of domestic abuse and violence at risk of further harm. Political parties including Labor and the Greens have also expressed concerns about the move.
A letter released by Australia’s Law Council opposing the bill has been signed by 155 stakeholders in Australia’s family justice system. The letter, published on February 16 and addressed to Australia’s Attorney-General Christian Porte, warns that the abolition of the standalone Family Court will have a devastating impact on families and dismantle ‘expertise’ developed within the Family Court.
Senator Patrick said critics of the merger did not understand the bill and that the changes would make it much easier for families to navigate the court system, particularly those without legal representation.
The decision to dismantle the Family Court in Australia will likely come as a shock to other countries like the UK, who have long considered Australia to be a pioneer of the family court system. Credited with the creation of the first in-house family consultants; the introduction of alternative dispute resolution in the form of conciliation conferences; and the development of a specialist appellate division in the Family Court of Australia, the country has been a source of inspiration for legal bodies and experts in Britain since the 1970s.
So why has Australia decided to get rid of its standalone Family Court? Much like the family courts in England and Wales, Australia’s family justice system has been buckling under the weight of ever growing case loads, and ineffective processes and procedures which have consistently failed to protect the most vulnerable inside its territories for decades.
Will the British government follow suit? If it does, much like Australia’s government, it will have to face strong opposition.