Wednesday, 17 February 2021
Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia Bill 2019, Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2019; Second Reading
It's a pleasure to follow on from Senator Green and echo her sentiments around domestic violence in particular, which I know have had an impact on this chamber, particularly in her first speech. Domestic violence is something that she continues to advocate about, and it is important that all of us in this chamber advocate about it when we have the opportunity.
The reality of what we're dealing with today, when it comes to the Family Court, is that we're dealing with people at their most vulnerable. We are dealing with people who are going through this when they are actually confronting it with the people they care about the most. You would think, given that scenario that families are confronting, that the government would be providing the evidence to actually back up these changes—given what those families out there in Australia are confronting going through the Family Court process.
I feel for any families caught up in this system. I'm sure we've all heard, through our offices, some of those terrible tales about how long these things have dragged on and the terrible impact it's had on families and the impact it's had on children. Obviously, there is the human emotion that goes into this as well. It's quite remarkable that the government have pursued these changes now. Let's face it: they've pursued these changes over the course of many years, because they have an agenda. But they have not provided any evidence that this is actually going to make things better for those families—that it's actually going to speed up the process so that families can get a resolution quicker. It's not going to make what can be an expensive process cheaper, either.
All of the legal experts who deal with this system have condemned the changes; they've said they're not going to make a difference. All of those support groups out there that provide support to families going through the Family Court process have criticised the changes and said they are not going to make things better.
The government have not even bothered to try to justify it. We know they've set up the select committee with Senator Hanson, who has been pursuing this—as Senator Green says—for a number of years now. They're not even waiting for the final report to pursue this. They feel as though they've got the numbers, and they just want to plough on through and do it without providing any evidence that it is going to improve things.
It's remarkable that the government solution to a crisis of their own making—they made the Family Court system worse; they have deliberately run it down—and this is the way that they're treating people at their most vulnerable. At the end of the day, this is typical of an arrogant government, an arrogant Prime Minister and an extremely arrogant Attorney-General, who has been pursuing this for years with zero evidence. There is absolutely zero evidence that these changes are going to improve the system. The Attorney-General and the government have pursued what they wanted to see through, and that's what they've gone about doing. They feel like they've got the numbers in the Senate so they're going to try and get it done this week.
There is a problem in the Family Court system, but these reforms are actually going to make it worse. We know that there have been almost 70 reviews of the family law system undertaken since 1974. Many of my colleagues have talked about the history, and the proud Labor history, of the Family Court system. And, of those 70 reviews, not one has ever suggested that the Family Court be structured in the way that the government is proposing, yet the government are going ahead with their changes. They should be honest about their plan, which is seeking to abolish the Family Court as a specialist and standalone court.
Labor is proud of its record of establishing the Family Law Act in 1975, which instituted two major changes. It instituted no-fault divorce and it established the Family Court of Australia, a specialist, multidisciplinary court for the arbitration of family disputes. This was one of the many proud Whitlam legacies, from Medicare and our world-beating superannuation system to free legal assistance for Australians in need.
The Australian Law Reform Commission also conducted a review into the Family Court system prior to the Joint Select Committee on Australia's Family Law System inquiry. The Australian Law Reform Commission said:
… the family law system has been deprived of resources to such an extent that it cannot deliver the quality of justice expected of a country like Australia, and to whose family law system other countries once looked and tried to emulate. There is a chronic lack of funding for the appointment and proper training of judicial resources (including judges, judicial registrars – none of whom are currently employed within the courts, and registrars), court-based social services professionals (including Family Consultants and Indigenous Liaison Officers), and legal aid services (including Independent Children's Lawyers). As a consequence, children and families are deprived of sufficient time and attention being given to their matter at all stages of the process …
That is from the Australian Law Reform Commission.
Over the last seven years, the story of the Australian family law system has been a story of neglect by Liberal governments—neglect by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, neglect by the Liberal government under Malcolm Turnbull and the ongoing neglect by the current Liberal-National government under Prime Minister Scott Morrison. In my own state, the Queensland Law Society have said the changes would not improve the system. The Queensland Law Society president, Ken Taylor, speaking on behalf of the society's 13,000 solicitors, said he was concerned that a lack of expertise in family law could result in erroneous decisions and poorer outcomes for families. He said:
It is a significant risk that the quality and propriety of family law decisions will be compromised where determinations are made by judicial officers without family law expertise …
That's from Ken Taylor, the Queensland Law Society president. The chair of the Queensland Law Society's Domestic and Family Violence Committee, Deborah Awyzio, said:
In our view, the Society does not agree that the structural changes will produce efficiencies or reduce delay or that the changes will reduce complexity or legal costs in the family law system …
The society has long warned that Australia's family law courts were in crisis, calling for further resources to the courts to avoid lengthy delays of trial dates and judgements. It's exactly the point that we've been making consistently and in these speeches—that the evidence from the experts and those who deal with the system is that the changes that are proposed aren't going to speed up the process and aren't going to reduce costs for the families involved. Mr Taylor went on to say:
We cannot expect our judges to perform miracles – they require adequate resourcing …
The solution is not this merger of the courts, it's ensuring that the correct level of experience and specialisation is paired with an adequate number of judges.
Again, that is from the Queensland Law Society president.
An open letter that was sent to the Attorney-General, opposing the merger of the family and circuit courts, co-signed by 157 prominent groups within the legal profession. As the Law Council reports:
Stakeholders continue to oppose the bill out of concern the merger will increase cost, delay and stress for families. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Family Court and FCC were facing delays of more than a year's worth of cases each. Two in three FCC judges already have more than 300 matters in their dockets, some more than 600. The Chief Judge of the FCC has previously indicated that the ideal number should be around 100 each.
They are a long way off that mark. The Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court—