Australia’s Family Court has a new Chief Justice and new Deputy Chief Justice after the Hon Will Alstergren and the Hon Robert McClelland were sworn into the respective new roles this week. Mr Alstergren is already the Chief Justice of the Federal Circuit Court, and his new tandem role has been designed to facilitate the planned merger of the two court systems into one “supercourt” next year.
The new merged court will be called the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (FCFCA). It will have two divisions, one focussing exclusively on family law and utilising existing judges from the Family Court. The other division will deal with both family law and general federal law matters and will utilise judges from the Federal Circuit Court.
Mr Alstergren faces the challenge of guiding Australia through this major reform, and says he expects the support “of the profession, the Government and the Opposition”, as well as the public. He says the public must have trust and confidence in the system, and has pleaded for everyone to “embrace change” and the opportunity to “drastically improve our family law system”.
The merger has been conceived as the only way to reduce the costs and delays that Australians currently experience going through the family court system. It’s hoped the merger will speed up trials, cut backlogs of unresolved cases, and reduce the acrimonious nature of family disputes.
Mr Alstergren says he plans to modernise the system, and “make the court process easier to understand and quicker to get an outcome, whether by judgment or agreement.”
Having the two court systems dealing with family law cases has meant two distinct case management approaches and two sets of rules, but the merged courts model would “harmonise the case management process across the two court systems” removing inefficiencies and duplication which lead to greater costs and delays.
However, not everyone is happy with the idea of the merged courts model. There’s been criticism over lack of consultation and former judges have warned “the reforms have been driven by spreadsheets rather than an understanding of the complexities of family disputes”, according to the ABC, which reports that the legislation to merge the two courts “is being scrutinised by a Senate committee, after the Lower House passed the bill.”
Arthur Moses of the Law Council of Australia says that while the system is clearly in need of reform, the merged courts model was not the answer. Mr Moses warned the merger could “reduce the number of specialist family law judges”:
“A lack of expertise in family law by judges can lead to erroneous decisions, poorer outcomes for families, and the risk of more appeals and increased costs for litigants. Using specialist judges is more efficient and produces fairer outcomes,” Mr Moses said.
He said the proposed merger is “based on a rushed and flawed external report” and has not been open to wide consultation. It is also pre-empting the results of the Australian Law Reform Commission’s review into family law issues, with the ALRC set to deliver its final report next March.
Mr Moses noted that the legal profession remains critical of the unresolved issues of “chronic underfunding of the family law system over several decades and the failure to make timely appointments of judicial officers”.
If you need help with a family law matter, please contact Canberra family lawyer Cristina Huesch or one of our other experienced solicitors here at Alliance Legal Services on (02) 6223 2400.
Please note our blogs are not legal advice. For information on how to obtain the correct legal advice, please contact Alliance Legal Services.