Issue 2, Volume 19
With the Morrison government’s federal court structural reform bill receiving royal assent on the 1st of March, a separate Family Court and Federal Circuit Court are set to become a thing of the past, with the two to be merged into a single new court – the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (FCFC). The passage of the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia Act brings to an end the 45-year history of the Family Court, first established by the Whitlam government in 1976 in the face of fierce resistance from the Liberal Opposition. Now, almost half a century later, the tables are turned with the Liberals abolishing the court and rolling it into the Federal Circuit Court in the face of strong Labor criticism.
The new court will contain two divisions – Division 1 will be a continuation of the Family Court and comprise the same judges, and Division 2 will do the same for Federal Circuit Court, but both will be under the direction of a single Chief Justice and Deputy Chief Justice. The reforms in their final iteration promise a slight increase in the number of specialist judges in each division, as recently noted in a fastidiously neutral media release from the Family Court itself, but the statement also notes that the Court will continue to “seek further resources” to implement the reforms and reduce current delays and backlogs.
In addition to political opposition, the merger has also been heavily criticised within the legal profession. The passage of the Act brings to an end a long running and heated debate dating back to the bill’s first introduction in 2019. An open letter signed by over 150 lawyers and legal organisations was circulated in December 2019, the signatories including the Law Council of Australia, various Bar associations, and a who’s who of influential silks and advocates, all calling for an increase in specialisation rather than a streamlining, citing the need for qualified training in areas of domestic and family violence among other concerns.
Many criticisms of the merger hinge around the fact that while the Attorney-General has spruiked it as a way to make the family law process cheaper, more accessible and efficient, it conspicuously fails to address the real issue behind the chronic backlog of family law cases plaguing the system, that being a simple lack of resources and underfunding.
The FCFC will begin operating a day and six months after it received Royal Assent on the 1st of March, or by Proclamation.
See the Chief Justice of the Family Court’s media release on the merger here.
Matthew is a second-year JD student.