Merging two courts could see an extra 8000 family law cases dealt with each year, slashing blown-out waiting times and reducing trauma for families.
Families now wait for more than a year for trials in both the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court, with cases often bouncing back and forth between the two.
Attorney-General Christian Porter says the merging of the two courts will remove the red tape that drags out complex trials, cut the backlog of unresolved cases and reduce prolonged and acrimonious family disputes.
“This significant structural change is designed to dramatically increase the number of family law matters finalised each and every year,” Mr Porter said on Wednesday, adding families would have one new court and one set of rules, procedures and practices to resolve disputes.
“Family break-up is a traumatic time for both parties and children as well as wider family.
“These reforms … (have) the potential in time to allow up to an extra 8000 cases to be resolved each and every year.”
The changes would not apply to Western Australia, which has a different system of family courts.
The Law Council of Australia described the proposal as a necessary first step towards resolving “the crisis in our courts”, but wants to see details of the plan.
Council president Morry Bailes said decades of chronic underfunding, and the increasing number of self-represented people appearing before the courts, also needed to be addressed.
Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus said there was a clear need to reform the family law system, but Labor was concerned about the “near-complete lack of consultation”.
“It appears the judges weren’t consulted, family groups, the sector wasn’t consulted, family lawyers weren’t consulted,” Mr Dreyfus told ABC radio.
He said the government also needed to take responsibility for repeatedly dragging its feet to fill judicial vacancies over the past five years.
We need to see the evidence for this proposed near-abolition of the Family Court, the evidence that this will produce better outcomes for families.”
The median time taken to reach trial has grown in both courts, now sitting at 15 months in the Federal Circuit Court and 17 months in the Family Court.
The merger will see judges from the Family Court hear family law matters, while Federal Circuit Court judges will hear family and general matters.
Over time, all judges will hear both family and general cases.
Almost 1200 families’ cases are transferred between the two courts each year, some after having been in court for more than 11 months.
Former Family Court Chief Justice Alastair Nicholson is concerned the changes could strain the emotions of litigants and lead to a heightened security risk.
Legislation to implement the changes will be introduced later this year.