A coalition of more than 60 legal organisations has urged the federal government to abandon a plan to scrap the Family Court as a stand-alone entity, warning that a proposed courts merger risks the safety of child and adult victims of family violence.
Attorney-General Christian Porter is at loggerheads with the country’s peak body for the legal profession, the Law Council of Australia, over his controversial plan to merge the specialist Family Court of Australia with the lower-level Federal Circuit Court.
The FCC hears some family law disputes alongside a raft of other cases, including migration matters.
In an open letter to Mr Porter, released on Monday, more than 60 organisations including the Law Council and peak bodies Women’s Legal Services Australia, Community Legal Centres Australia and National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services urged the government to return to the drawing board on family law reform.
“The safety of children and adult victims-survivors of family violence requires increased specialisation,” the letter says. “The proposed merger serves only to undermine that important need.”
The signatories say “safety must come first in family law” and they “welcome further consultations on alternative models of structural, holistic reform to benefit children, families and victims-survivors of family violence”.
“We prefer a model that retains a stand-alone specialist superior family court and increases family law and family violence specialisation,” the letter says.
Nerita Waight, co-chair of National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, said the reforms would “disproportionately impact the most vulnerable including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families who need the most support”.
In a report released in April, the Australian Law Reform Commission said the majority of family law cases in federal courts now involved violence, child abuse or other complex factors.
It said up to 70 per cent of parents in family law proceedings reported their children had been exposed to family violence, and almost one in five said they had safety concerns either for themselves or their children, or both.
In a speech in August, Mr Porter rejected claims the merger would lead to a loss of specialisation or spell “the end of the Family Court”, and said the court would continue to exist as a division of the new Federal Circuit and Family Court.
Under his initial plan, existing Family Court judges would have been housed in division one of the new court but no further judges would have been appointed to that division. In a bid to secure crossbench support for his plan, he agreed to a permanent “floor” of 25 judges in division one.
Angela Lynch, spokesperson for Women’s Legal Services Australia, said the lack of a stand-alone specialist court would make it “much easier” for future governments not to replace specialist judges.
“Government-commissioned inquiry after inquiry has recommended increasing specialisation in both family law and family violence, including the recent Australian Law Reform Commission review of the family law system,” she said.
Mr Porter says the merger will improve efficiency in cases and help clear a backlog of about 20,000 matters, a claim disputed by the Law Council.
He attempted to pass a bill to give effect to the merger before the May 18 election but was unable to win sufficient support from the Senate crossbench to bring on a vote. Mr Porter announced in August he would revive the plan and the legislation is expected to be reintroduced to Parliament before the end of the year.
In a speech last week, Law Council of Australia president Arthur Moses, SC, accused the federal government of adopting a “stubborn and wrong-headed approach to family law” that will hurt children and families.
Mr Porter retaliated by saying “Arthur Moses’ approach falls into Einstein’s definition of madness – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result”.
On Sunday Mr Moses said “the time has come for Attorney-General Porter to stop making derogatory remarks against those who oppose this misconceived and wrong-headed proposal”.
“Rather he should listen and engage in a mature manner with those raising concerns as they know this area of the law better than any member of the government. It is too important to get wrong,” he said.
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