The Federal Government of Australia has plans to merge the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court into a new body named the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (FCFCA). This comes in a bid to ease pressure on the strained family law system. The reforms are set to take effect at the beginning of 2019, but have been met by criticism. Here’s everything you need to know.
What is the difference between the two courts?
While the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court both handle family law matters, the Federal Circuit Court attends to more straightforward cases and is more informal, cheaper and quicker to use than the Family Court. The Federal Circuit Court was founded in 2000 in an attempt to ease pressure on the existing Family Court system, which has been around since 1976.
What’s wrong with the current system?
The current family law system is under strain and has been criticised as being restrictively expensive and time-consuming. The two courts deal with around 22,000 cases a year, with the majority of them taking almost one-and-a-half years to reach trial; this is a long time to wait for families dealing with issues such as disagreements in custody arrangements and allegations of child abuse. Additionally, about 1,200 cases are shifted between the two courts every year, causing further delays and frustrations for families.
What evidence are the reforms based on?
The reforms are grounded on a report by PwC Australia commissioned by Attorney-General Christian Porter’s department, which was given to the Turnbull government in April. The report suggested that the Federal Circuit Court is more efficient in resolving family law cases than the Family Court.
What good will the merger do?
The Attorney-General Christian Porter has suggested that the merger could assist in an additional 8,000 cases being settled every year. He also argues that the similarities in procedures and jurisdiction between the two courts would help simplify the process. The merger aims to quicken the task of resolving family disputes and be more cost-effective for families.
What do critics say?
Experts argue that the statistics in the PwC report are misleading and have been taken out of context. And with the reform set to come into effect just months from the March 2019 release of an official review by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC), some have argued that the proposed merger is being rushed and that the ALRC’s report should be considered first. There are also concerns around the government’s lack of consultation with family groups and those working in the sector. Some have suggested that the appointment of additional judges and extra funding would be more useful than a merger.
Nonetheless, if the merger does come into effect, it will have an impact on the ways families use the family court system. The results are yet to be seen, but hopefully the reforms will lighten the financial and emotional pressure on families dealing with a legal dispute.