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
Well, it's a whole new low for the Liberal Party today, isn't it—eh? I tell you who is gaining something out of this and it isn't always the experts out there who said, 'Do not do this, do not do this,' because they would know it's gone from a lawyer's picnic to a lawyer's banquet. They're going, 'You beauty, bring in the money; bring her in, baby.' That's exactly what is going on here. My goodness, like there isn't enough heartache going on in our family court system. Right now it's underresourced and understaffed. If you think the heartache and the suicides that are going on out there right now are bad enough, if you have half a conscience over on that side, wait until you see what is coming, because it is a train wreck in action. What is wrong with you people? You're playing with people's lives. By the time people get to the Family Court they are vulnerable. The mums and dads are vulnerable, and the poor kids—my goodness!
Where is your conscience? Goodness me.
Just take a moment and picture a judge hearing a case in an Australian court. Do me a favour and call up an image of it in your own mind for just one moment—and, if you can get a slight feeling from it, that would be great. If you're one of the lucky people who's never had anything to do with our legal system, you probably expect that the process is fast and fair. I tell you what, it is not. And it's not because of the judges, not because of the people who work in our courts, but because of decisions that have been made up here—the under-resourcing, the understaffing. It is absolutely atrocious. The harm you're going to bring and what you're already doing to these families is disgusting. No conscience whatsoever—I've never seen a government like this one, not in my lifetime. You should be ashamed of yourselves.
You might picture something like what you see at the end of a cop show on TV. Maybe you're thinking of a system where the bad guys get locked up and the good guys are quickly let go. In the back of your mind, you possibly have an idea that everybody has a high-powered lawyer in an expensive suit—and, my goodness, are they expensive. At the very least, you probably figure that normal people will get decent professional help to navigate through it all. When it comes to someone's day before the judge, maybe you imagine that they have a lawyer who uses clever language and careful questions to get to the bottom of their case. If that's what you're thinking, you aren't alone; that's how I used to think our court system worked as well. Oh dear. It's funny when you have life experience of something—not just in one year, two years, three years and four years. It's an amazingly different picture that you actually get, because I've come to realise that this isn't true and that's how things are. It's a fantasy, an absolute fantasy.
Our courts don't look like the courts on TV or in movies. The truth is that the process is messy and it is slow and it is incredibly expensive and it is becoming out of reach for many normal Australians out there. That's where our justice system is going, and that is so unfair. Here's the great divide between the rich and the poor. Even if the system finds the right answers eventually, it can take a lot of pain to get there.
The Attorney-General knows this is a problem. He knows that the courts are running too slowly; they're too ineffective. People like to say the first step towards fixing a problem is admitting you have one, and you've got to give it to the Attorney: he has made the first step. Where he's gone wrong is in how he wants to fix it. He says that we need to merge the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court to clear out the backlog. I don't know where you've been, mate, but you've seen the backlog in the Federal Circuit Court and you want to merge them? I don't know what planet you're sitting on, Attorney-General, but come back to earth—because it's causing great harm to many Australians out there. Our court system, the whole lot of it, is in dire straits, and now you're going to throw this Family Court system in with the rest of it. Seriously? Seriously, mate?
These bills don't do anything to fix what's going wrong for so many Australian families who find themselves before the courts. Merging the two courts that deal with family law matters won't take the pressure off the judges to get through the hundreds of cases at a time and it won't get people the legal assistance they need to have the best chance that their day in court will go well for them. If the Attorney-General was really committed to making our courts faster and fairer, he'd put his money where his mouth is, once and for all, and resource them, because that's what's missing here, mate. Family law cases should be dealt with more quickly and more efficiently so there is less harm done to the family unit, and that's not being done. Now you're just stretching it out, and like I said, I hope you can wear it, mate, and you can sleep at night, because you're going to see a lot more hurt going on in these families, and more suicides. Quite frankly, you disgust me.
Some judges in the Circuit Court have over 600 cases on their books. It isn't humanly possible for them to get through that kind of workload in a reasonable amount of time, let alone try and get through every case and understand it. The delays leave people stuck in limbo, waiting for hearing dates that are months away, years away. When they finally get their hearing, they'll again have to wait months for the judges to deliver their findings, because they're so overstacked. These sorts of delays across all levels of courts are causing the real harm to people and their families.
The time it takes to get things resolved is time in which people aren't getting justice, either to have their defence upheld or to have their complaint acted upon. For families in the court system, it can mean months or years of waiting to be able to move on from a nasty marriage breakup which has already caused havoc in the family unit itself—let alone the destruction it's doing to our Australian kids, our future. It means that a five-year-old could end up waiting a third of their life before the courts finally figure out whether they're going to stay with mum or dad. And you wonder why our kids are having bloody psychological issues out there!
This isn't a problem that merging the courts will solve. It's happening because the government isn't giving the courts the funding they need to be able to get through the work that they have to do. It's happening because our judges are overworked. Family Court judges are working well into the night every night to get through cases that often involve children who are at risk of abuse and violence. As hard as they work, they have to churn through them as though they're on a production line, and that is not the way our courts were set up to deal with things. We're asking judges to work as if they're someone in a burger joint—just chuck on a bit more lettuce, double the cheese; great, no worries!—rushing about to get your orders filled and out the door as fast as possible. How is that justice? How is that bringing justice to any Australian, let alone Australian families?
Sometimes judges in the Federal Circuit Court have to deal with 70 legal matters before 10 in the morning. That's 70 decisions they have to make before most people have even had brunch or their second cup of coffee. That's what we're dealing with. How can any judge give those cases the consideration and care that they deserve? I don't care how good they are at their job; they're human. They could be the best in the world and they wouldn't be able to get through all that properly. Nobody could, unless they have some sort of superpower. These judges have inherited that somehow, and I don't recall you giving them that, Attorney-General.
Every person who's behind a legal case like that has a story to tell, but the judges don't have time to hear them. Instead, they're in and out as quickly as possible. That's not how you give broken families justice. All you're doing is bringing them more hurt and more misery. I didn't sign up to be a politician to do that. Obviously the Attorney did though, because the churn of the cases going through the courts means that the chambers end up feeling like a shopping centre. It's a ride up and down the escalators—no worries!—in and out, get your purchases and back out the door.
One lawyer spoke out and said that being in the Federal Circuit Court was like being in a zoo. We're sending Australian families into a zoo and expecting them to get a fair hearing. That's why we're asking the legal system to figure out how to look after vulnerable kids. We're asking them to look after our vulnerable kids, and they can't even keep up with the cases. How much do we need to ask of them? I don't think there's much left. I don't think there's anything in reserve. They're overstacked and they're underresourced, and this is not the way to fix it. Parents are supposed to get a fair hearing on whether they can get custody of their children. Instead, they're running around in a zoo or waiting for the burger. That's what is going on here.
The people who are copping it the most are the families who can least afford it. It's getting further and further away from them, and that's got to bring destruction. It's got to bring destruction to the nation. So the people losing out here are the good old Aussie family, those who are already doing it tough more than likely, the ones who don't have the money to fight these cases in the courts, the families who don't have the money to pay for lawyers' banquets. The Attorney knows that. My word he does! He's got to know that, because apparently he's the Attorney. He's educated—apparently well educated—so why doesn't he know that? He says people shouldn't have to fork out buckets of money to get before a judge. He's right. That there's a problem in itself. At least you've picked that up. But talking the talk ain't walking the walk, is it?
You're not doing anything to fix it; you're actually making it worse, which is really soul destroying, to be honest with you.
Hundreds of people are going through the Family Court on their own. One study on the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court counted nearly 250 hearings where at least one of the parties was self-represented, and that is an absolute disaster in itself. Those people might not be getting the legal advice they need, and many of them won't get the best chance to make their case properly to a judge. It makes it harder for judges to get through their huge workload, because those cases usually take longer to get through.
Yes, the top-up of funding of legal assistance programs last year was welcome, but we've had successive cuts to legal aid funding for decades. A one-off injection isn't going to cut it. It's not even close. You haven't even got to sharpening the knife; I can assure you. If the Attorney were really committed to keeping costs down, he wouldn't be hiking up court fees for people in the Federal Circuit Court like he is doing. I'm very worried about the recent fee increases for migration cases in that court. They're going to be paying five times what they were paying before. It is the thin edge of the wedge. It's coming. If you think it's only going to happen to those immigrants, I can assure you: it's coming.
Will families be forced to pay five times more than what they are already having to pay now? How many people will lose their chance to get before a court because of those fee hikes? It's terribly worrying. How much more damage will be done to families? Justice shouldn't come more easily to people who can pay for it. This merger won't fix our broken court system. The problems that we have don't come from the Family Court being inefficient and they don't come from confusion about where to lodge a case; the issues are much bigger than that and they go much deeper than that. To push complex family law matters through the Federal Circuit Court is going to end up in absolute disaster, it is going to end up in misery, it is going to take people's lives, and it is going to cost the economy a lot more. Spend, and it won't cost you more. Fix it in the first place and fix it properly, because you'll save in the long run. Weren't you taught that growing up, Attorney? Was it all just out of a textbook for you? Get some life experience, because you need it.
The Federal Circuit Court is one of the busiest in the country. Along with family matters, it deals with things like migration cases, bankruptcy, intellectual property rights, workplace law, consumer issues and so on. We can't get families the support and services they need if we're sending them into a zoo to get their cases heard. They are having to represent themselves to judges who are overworked, tired and don't have the time to hear their stories and their background. We're talking about some of the worst moments of these people's lives and their kids' lives, and they deserve a lot better than that. What is going on here today is so un-Australian.
Everybody should have a right to legal representation and fairness. That is what this country is about. You just stuck that knife in today, Attorney, and you twisted it, didn't you? My goodness. Here you go, you most vulnerable families in Australia: take that; thanks for coming! The bills do not get to the heart of where the problem is, because, to fix the problem, the government will need to put a lot more money into it. They're not doing it and they're not going to bother to.