Today we have seen splashed across all news media outlets the announcement of an “overhaul” of the family court system to deal with the substantial delays of having matters finally determined in our court system.
Since 2000 we have had two separate courts, with two separate sets of rules, forms and court procedures to navigate for our clients. At that time, it was the intention that the Federal Circuit Court (formerly the Federal Magistrates Court) would deal with less complex matters more cost efficiently and expediently. Unfortunately, what has occurred in the almost two decades since is a duplication of costs and delays for all family law litigants.
In support of the proposed reform, the Attorney General’s Department has released a statement which showed that whilst the number of family law applications in both courts was consistent, the experience for litigants was different in each court. It was found that the delays expected by litigants in the Federal Circuit Court was approximately 15 months to a final hearing, whilst in the Family Court the wait was almost 17 months. It was otherwise found that the costs for families was up to 4 times more in the Family Court than the Federal Circuit Court, and that the Family Court required 45% more court attendances than the Federal Circuit Court.
Reforming the family law system
The new reform of the family law system aims to merge the two courts. The new court, known as the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (FCFA) will be the single-entry point for all family law cases.
There will be two divisions of the Court:
- Division 1 will be the judges of the Family Court of Australia; and will only deal with family law matters;
- Division 2 will be the judges of the Federal Circuit Court; and will deal with both family law and general federal law matters.
The most fundamental change proposed is the removal of a substantial portion of the appellate jurisdiction of the Court, which is intended to free up judicial time, with the potential to allow up to an extra 8,000 cases to be resolved each year. However, it is intended that the FCFA will retain jurisdiction to hear appeals on family law cases from State and Territory courts of summary jurisdiction.
The Attorney General’s department has indicated that the legislation for the reform will be introduced in the Spring parliamentary sittings, with the aim of commencing as and from 1 January 2019.
Initially both sets of Court rules will be retained, however it is intended that the rules will thereafter be updated to achieving consistency in forms, procedures and practice directions.
It is hoped that the reforms will enable more family law matters to be dealt with each year, and that the merging of the courts will remove the inconsistencies faced by litigants in the existing Court structure.
What the future holds
From our perspective, this change whilst significant, can only improve the delays, processes and inefficiencies of the current system for the benefit of our clients.