In May this year, the federal government announced plans to introduce legislation into parliament amalgamating the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court into a newly formed single court.
What are the proposed changes?
Under the current system, family law matters can be filed either in the Federal Circuit Court – previously the Federal Magistrates Court – or the Family Court. However, the proposed changes will see the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court combined into the one court – to be known as the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (FCFCA) as from 1 January 2019.
The proponents of this reform argue that the new structure will allow the FCFCA to give priority to urgent and high-risk matters, and that cases can be allocated to judges with the relevant experience and expertise.
The rights of appeal in the Family Court will remain unchanged under the new system. However, having one new amalgamated court will mean that the majority of the appeal – or appellate jurisdiction of the Family Court will be removed. The FCFCA will hear appeals from State and Territory courts of summary jurisdiction only, and other appeals will be heard by the Federal Court.
Why is there a need for change?
The Attorney-General’s department claims that the reforms will help deal with current problems in the family law system, namely: delays, inconsistencies and unnecessary costs.
Under the current system, matters are taking an average of 18 months to reach trial, meaning that there may be significant changes in the lives of parents and their children while the matter is waiting to be heard. Furthermore, where disputes exist about parenting arrangements, children are left with great uncertainty about their future for long periods of time.
The fact that separating couples can currently file their matters in either the Federal Circuit Court or the Family Court leads to a lot of confusion for people involved in family law matters. This is especially true of people who are trying to navigate their way through without a lawyer because each court has its own filing fees, procedural rules and forms as well as areas of appropriate jurisdiction.
The aim of the new single court is to make family court proceedings more efficient and consistent, giving families the opportunity to come to a faster and cheaper resolution of their disputes.
Will these changes improve the current system?
The government argues that the creation of a single court will lead to resolving an additional 8,000 family law matters per year.
However, critics argue that focusing on efficiency and ‘fast-tracking’ family law matters may lead to inadequacies in dealing with matters of greater complexity that involve issues such as domestic violence or parenting capacity for example. They also point out that these proposed reforms come at a time when a wide-ranging review of the family law system is currently in progress, and that it would be more sensible to wait for those findings before undertaking structural reforms. Indeed, the largest criticism is that the proposed amalgamation of the two courts has been announced with little to no input from the judges and family law practitioners who currently work in this area.