Lawyer bodies have renewed their call for Parliament to reject what they said is a “flawed family court merger bill.”
The call came after Attorney-General Christian Porter reintroduced on Thursday morning draft laws to merge the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court, maintaining that the planned combination has been corrected to take into account warnings from various stakeholders.
In an open letter, 117 organisations and individuals called on Porter to abandon the planned combination. The government should instead strengthen its specialisation in family law and family violence, they said.
The Law Council of Australia, the nation’s peak legal body representing more than 65,000 Australian lawyers, has repeatedly criticised the plan, even warning in July against its reintroduction. Arthur Moses SC, Law Council president, said that the plan could “make the system worse.”
“This misstep will harm families. For more than 40 years, the Family Court has been a premier legal institution, a specialist superior court admired by other family law jurisdictions around the world for its innovative management of the most complex and difficult family law matters. The bill will not produce efficiencies, reduce delays, or deliver anything of real value. Nor will they reduce complexity or legal costs in the family law system. In fact, it could make the system worse,” he said.
Nassim Arrage, Community Legal Centres Australia chief executive, warned about the negative impact of the plan on community legal centres.
“Community legal centres are approached by people every day seeking help with family law and domestic violence; parenting arrangements are the number-one legal issue where community legal centres provide legal advice and other assistance, with more than 30% of people who seek help from community legal centres (experiencing) family violence. Based on our experience, we share the concerns being raised about moving away from a specialist Family Court model,” he said.
Women’s Legal Services Australia was also among the groups that signed the open letter. Angela Lynch AM, a spokesperson for the organisation, said the enhancement of family violence specialisation in courts is recommended as best practice both nationally and internationally, the opposite of what the plan would bring about.
“With up to 85% of matters in the family courts involving family violence, any reforms must prioritise child and victim safety. We have concerns the proposed model does not achieve this,” Lynch said.
Nerita Waight, co-chair of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, which also signed the letter, warned of the disproportionate impact of the merger on the most vulnerable, including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families who need the most support.
“Based on the experience of Aboriginal Legal Services across the country, these reforms will lead to a range of unintended consequences including a reduced number of specialist family law judges, poorer decisions and increased costs for litigants,” she said.
Dr Merrindahl Andrew, program manager at the Australian Women Against Violence Alliance, said that while reform of the Family Court system is needed, the proposals made by the planned merger is not the solution needed.
“It is very risky to make major structural changes in a system that is so chronically under-funded that it struggles to meet its basic functions. We should be adding resources so that we can improve safety, not looking for efficiencies,” she said.
The signatories of the letter also includes sexual and family violence peak bodies and services, health peak bodies and services, disability peak bodies and services, community organisations and legal experts.