The Family Court Merger, Explained
The government just made a huge change to Australia’s Family Court, which is the system that deals with really delicate family disputes.
More than 155 legal experts signed a letter opposing this new decision, because it could leave people like victims of domestic abuse in an even more vulnerable position.
So what’s changed, and why is the government messing around with such an important court system without even listening to the experts?
What’s Happened To The Family Court?
Before last week, the legal system in Australia had a specific place for people to resolve complex family disputes.
The Family Court dealt with situations like divorces with intricate financial details that needed to be figured out, as well as incidents where sexual abuse allegations had been made within a family, or where a child was deemed to be in danger.
But the government just rapidly passed new legislation to merge Australia’s Family Court with the more generalised Federal Circuit Court.
The Family Court system wasn’t a perfect one. For a long time, peak legal bodies in Australia have been pushing for some kind of changes to it.
But they’re now slamming the government for passing this legislation pretty much overnight, because they believe this new merger will make it way harder for people to get the level of support and resolution that the Family Court provided.
A Faster And Cheaper Legal System Is Not The System We Need
But the legal experts think this new system will put massive pressure on the Federal Circuit Court, which already deals with a lot more than family disputes.
It hears cases on everything from immigration and trade practices, to fair work and employment law.
And by adding more responsibilities to the Federal Circuit Court’s plate, there is a real fear that victims and survivors of say, domestic violence could end up falling through the cracks.
Angela Lynch (CEO, Women’s Legal Service QLD): “Up to 85% of matters in the family law courts deal with background issues of domestic violence and we believe that … priority should be given to vulnerable children in those relationships and to vulnerable adults as well.”
The government supposedly didn’t consult with peak national services – like Women’s Legal Service Australia – before its decision, and there’s a sense that it’s chosen to prioritise economics over people’s actual welfare.
The OG Family Court Didn’t Really Work
The Family Court actually did used to be part of the Federal Circuit Court.
Only twenty years ago there was a move to split the two, to properly resource the high demand of family cases.
But over the years, both courts have really struggled to work through a backlog of tens and thousands of cases, and that’s because of massive funding issues.
It’s why people wanted a change to the Family Court in the first place; because victims of domestic violence have time and time again, been failed by the justice system.
AL: “What happens at the moment is there are so many women who are victims of domestic violence, who are unable to get legal aid and who can’t afford a private lawyer, who act for themselves in court. So basically, they are facing off their perpetrator in the court, fighting for their safety and their children’s safety, and that just happens every day.”
An Imperfect Solution
Angela was hoping for a different solution to improve the Family Court system.
She thinks family disputes should have a specialised, stand-alone court with enhanced training in domestic violence risks and improved safety approaches.
The Attorney General has also previously promised extra resourcing to the system, but Angela and other legal experts are yet to see what that actually looks like.
Ultimately there was a real opportunity here to actually listen to legal experts and plug more targeted resources into and around the family legal system, to really support the people who need it.
But this merger decision by the government feels like it’s taking a step backward, and its impacts will most likely be devastating for domestic violence victims and their families.