The government has introduced the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia Bill 2019 in order to structurally reform the Federal Circuit Court and Family Court of Australia, both of which currently have responsibility for family law matters. This merger has been proposed to help reduce delays and increasing backlogs in the family law courts leading to greater efficiency in the way family law matters are dealt with in Australia. This hotly debated reform passed the lower house late last year (December 2020) despite much opposition. In this blog, we review the proposed court merger and other changes under this bill.

The Court Merger

The Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia Bill 2019 aims to bring the Federal Circuit Court of Australia and the Family Court of Australia together into an overarching, unified administrative structure to be known as the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (FCFC). These structural reforms facilitated by the Bill purport to create a framework in the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia for common leadership, common management and a comprehensive and consistent internal case management approach.

There is a clear emphasis on efficiency, evident under section 5 of the Bill which states that the object of this legislative instrument is:

(a)  to ensure that justice is delivered by federal courts effectively and efficiently; and

(b)  to provide for just outcomes, in particular, in family law or child support proceedings; and

(c)  to provide a framework to facilitate cooperation between the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (Division 1) and the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (Division 2) with the aim of ensuring:

(i)  common rules of court and forms; and

(ii)  common practices and procedures; and

(iii)  common approaches to case management.

In a Media Release from the office of the Attorney-General, Christian Porter has said that ‘bringing the courts together under one amalgamated structure creates a single point of entry for families who will no longer be bounced around between different courts – an issue that occurs too often in the current system and can lead to lengthy delays for families because matters have to begin again.’ However, it is worth noting that some legal experts, while acknowledging the difficulties presented by a duplicate court system, worry that the merger will be an abolition of the specialist Family Court of Australia.

Other Changes

The legislation also requires that judges hearing family law matters in either Division will need to satisfy additional appointment criteria to guarantee they are suitable to dealing with family law matters, including family violence. This is due to the fact that many matters that come before the family court tend to have elements of family violence, therefore family law judges will also need to have a strong understanding of family violence and its implications for the safety of women and children.

In a further Media Release from the office of the Attorney-General, it was noted that the Government has provided $4 million in funding to the federal courts to review court rules and assist with implementing the reforms as well as a $3.7 million boost to court resources.

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