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
I rise to speak in extreme opposition to this proposal to merge the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court. This government bill, the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia Bill 2019, has been brought on today in an awful hurry after, it seems, one of the crossbenchers changed their mind about their view on the bill. This bill, together with the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2019, has been hanging around for years and it's been a bad idea since the day dot.
I don't think there's anyone who thinks the Family Court is working terribly well at the minute. We hear harrowing stories of justice delayed, and I'm sure every knows that justice delayed is justice denied. There is a lack of proper training for judicial officers and support staff in spotting and responding to domestic violence and supporting those affected, and there is desperate underfunding of community legal centres and other folk who support people seeking to access the Family Court, but merging the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court won't fix either of those problems.
I'm just baffled as to why the government thinks that this is a good idea. It was a friendless proposal until this morning. I think it's One Nation and Senator Patrick who have decided to support this legislation. No-one else in the profession thinks this merger is a good idea. None of the constituents I've spoken to on this matter think this will fix any of the problems they have in getting their issues properly dealt with in the Family Court. The fact is that the court is underresourced and there's a massive backlog. You don't fix that by adding it in with a different jurisdiction; you fix it by properly resourcing the court, hiring some more judges. The court themselves have a proposal to hire some more registrars to deal with some of the less legally intense aspects. It seems a meritorious suggestion, as long as more judges are hired as well. There are so many things that could, and should, be done to fix up the problem. This is the wrong solution to the right problem. It's baffling to me that the Attorney-General, in the face of so many letters, so many submissions and so many experts saying, 'Wrong way; go back,' is persisting with this nonsense proposal that won't fix anything.
The safety of children needs to be paramount in the Family Court, and one of the advantages of the Family Court is that it is a specialist jurisdiction. It is a superior court, as it's called in the legalese, with specialist expertise. Merging it with a generalist court can only, logic would hold, reduce specialisation. In this day and age, when we have an epidemic of violence against women and their children and when many of the cases that end up in the Family Court in fact feature it as an element, why on earth would you reduce the specialisation of the courts to deal with that matter? Yes, of course we need more training for the judges, registrars and other support services that surround the victims of violence who are seeking to access justice through the Family Court, but we will have less of that when we reduce the specialisation of the Family Court. It genuinely beggars belief that the government could think this is in any way a good idea, for anyone. So we strongly oppose this legislation. Of course, it is not the first time the government has sought to bring these bills on. They've been hanging around since 2018. Everyone recommended against them and they're still recommending against them now, but that's falling on ears that just will not hear sense.
As part of a separate but related inquiry into family law matters, I attended a briefing in recent times and was told of the reforms that the court is already undertaking. There is already a process to harmonise court rules. So whatever administrative efficiencies can be gained and whatever closer associations there need to be are already happening. We do not need this merger to deliver administrative efficiencies, and it certainly won't deliver justice. It will reduce specialisation. It is an overly complex and ill-fitting solution that does not address the real problems.
We are concerned about the loss of specialisation in the Family Court. We are concerned that survivors of domestic violence will continue to be retraumatised through the justice system and will now have an even less appropriate forum in which to raise those matters. Women's organisations oppose this legislation. Even a bevy of former Family Court judges oppose this legislation. I might take this chance to highlight some of those concerns. I have a letter here that was signed by more than 150 professionals in this space. Some of them are ex-judges. The Law Council is a signatory. Many of the women's support services have signed on. It's a letter to the letter to the Attorney-General and I'm going to quote selectively from it. One paragraph says:
Any reform should strengthen a system, not lead to the diminution of specialisation. If the Government's proposed reforms proceed, we will lose a stand-alone specialist superior family court.
It goes on to say:
We … support having a single entry point to the family courts and common rules so the … system is easier for families to navigate.
… this can be done without abandoning the benefits otherwise available to children and families from a properly resourced and specialised court system.
They've referred to the fact that those rules are in the process of being harmonised, and they too support that process. But we do not need to be merging these two courts and diluting the specialisation of the Family Court in order to achieve those administrative efficiencies.
Indeed, what should the driver be here? It should be the safety of children and people seeking justice, and it should be facilitating affordable access to justice, not simply a box-ticking exercise for the Attorney-General. Those signatories to the letter go on to say:
We believe an increase in specialisation in family law and family violence will increase the safety of children and adult victims-survivors of family violence … The need for increased specialisation of courts to improve decisions and outcomes for families is supported by the evidence of many inquiries.
… … …
The safety of children and adult victims-survivors of family violence requires increased specialisation. The proposed merger serves only to undermine that important need.
This is a ludicrous proposal. It has no friends, bar a couple of folk on the crossbench who happen to have the balance of power in the Senate. This will further delay the delivery of justice. It will further reduce the ability of the courts to acknowledge and address family violence. It will continue to disenfranchise people seeking justice from the courts. It doesn't fix the underfunding of community legal centres and other support services. It doesn't fix the understaffing of courts, when it comes to the numbers of judicial officers and the workload that they have. It doesn't fix the problem of costly applications to the court. It doesn't fix any of those real problems, which have real impacts on real people's lives. It is the most shameless and disappointing of proposals to hold out false hope, when this isn't going to solve anything. In fact, it's going to make it worse.
So we oppose this legislation with the strongest possible might of our party. We have much support in that regard but, sadly, it seems that, with the change of one vote from a crossbench member, this bill may well pass the Senate today. We will be doing everything we can to stop that because we believe that justice should be accessible, that specialisation is appropriate and necessary and that more resourcing for the Family Court—not a dilution of its specialisation with this merger—is what's needed to protect women, children and others seeking access to the family law justice system.