Australia’s Family Court has collapsed after a bill merging the system with Federal Circuit Court passed the Senate on Wednesday night.
The move has devastated dozens of legal and family violence experts, who fear the merger will leave vulnerable Australians worse off.
Despite voicing their concerns, the bill received federal Parliament’s final approval on Thursday thanks to the Coalition, One Nation and key crossbencher Rex Patrick.
So what are the changes?
What did the Family Court do?
The Family Court of Australia was established in 1975 with the aim of solving complex legal family disputes.
It was staffed by specialist judges who were experts in family violence, separation, divorce, child support, adoption and property settlements.
Like nearly all family matters that end up in court, the cases are often complicated and highly emotional.
This is why specialist judges with strong people skills were chosen to handle them with sensitivity.
During a typical day at the Family Court, a judge may handle cases that involve allegations of child abuse, domestic violence or financial issues, such as claims to superannuation.
What happens now?
Rather than operating as a separate court that exclusively handles family matters, the Family Court has now been absorbed by the Federal Circuit Court.
From now on, family court matters will be thrown into a broad mix of cases, ranging from migration and human rights to bankruptcy and industrial matters.
The Morrison government insists the change will make the court system simpler and reduce backlogs with as many as 8000 extra cases resolved each year.
For years, Australia’s family law system has been criticised for being too slow, and this bill promises to streamline the process.
Attorney-General Christian Porter said a single point of entry would make the system simpler and reduce confusion for families.
He said many of the loudest voices opposing the reform had a vested interest in delays that led to increasing tensions and rising costs.
“Families who need to use the court to resolve matters at the end of a relationship have a right to expect the system will help them settle their matters quickly, efficiently and at as low cost as possible,” Mr Porter said.
“Unfortunately, for too many families, this has not been the reality as the system itself has been exacerbating the stress and pressure being experienced by users of the courts.”
The controversial court merger has been met with outrage by Labor, crossbenchers and dozens of top legal and family violence experts, who argue the changes will harm – not help – Australian families.
The Law Council of Australia, Women’s Legal Services Australia, Community Legal Centres Australia and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services have all consistently opposed the government’s bill to abolish the Family Court.
The Law Council released an open letter on Tuesday morning with 155 signatories from the family law arena, including 13 retired judges, imploring the government to drop the merger.
- They say the Federal Circuit Court is already chronically underfunded and won’t cope with the extra workload of family matters
- Under the new system, there won’t be enough judges to meet the needs of the Family Court
- Evidence shows the merger will harm families and people experiencing family violence
- The new court will be tasked with delivering court efficiency, resolving 8000 extra cases, reducing costs, and cutting down the time separating families will spend before the court, as well as reducing delays.
“While we respect the will of the Parliament, what is disappointing about the process has been that the advice of highly respected experts has been consistently disregarded,” they said in a statement.
Jacqui Watt, CEO of No To Violence men’s referral service, told The New Daily the merger had “the potential to make settlement easier for men who use family violence”.
“A lack of understanding of family violence, particularly coercive controlling behaviours, can lead to perpetrators using the system to continue abusing their former partners without this being picked up,” Ms Watt said.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au
In an emergency, call 000.