FAMILY Relationship Centres have called for the revenue from court fee increases of 20 per cent intended to deter vexatious litigants to be redirected to mediation services to help at-risk children.
Family and Relationship Services Australia says the charges intended for public companies with considerable resources have been blindly applied to broken and struggling families appearing before the Family Court.
In a submission to a Senate inquiry, FRSA quotes a Law Council of Australia estimate that $68 million of the $100m raised by the increased filing fees and mediation conference charges over the past four years has not been fed back into the court system.
FRSA executive director Steve Hackett said the 65 centres across the country had been feeling the full effect of funding cuts enforced last year and were in no position to manage additional clients.
“Which is what may occur if this policy has the desired effect of redirecting individuals away from the court,” he told The Australian.
“Essentially, family and relationship services will continue to be overburdened with clients looking for help and the longer vulnerable families have to wait, the longer children, in particular, will remain at risk.
“It is not appropriate that the same policy tool used to deter corporate litigants would also be used to discourage individuals and vulnerable families from seeking relief through the judicial system.
“The revenue raised from the increases needs to be directed to supporting families to access services outside of the court system, such as improving the capacity of mediation services.”
Family Relationship Centres were set up by the Howard government to keep children out of courtrooms, reduce the cost to government of break-ups and battles in the Family Court, and to cut the number of custody battles.
The Attorney-General’s Department has defended the charges in a submission, arguing it wanted to put families off court.
“Family law proceedings can be a highly emotional event in a person’s life. However, appropriate pricing signals can encourage litigants to consider whether they should engage in litigation, and the approach they take in relation to the conduct of that litigation, while also ensuring that meritorious litigants are not deterred from seeking redress,” the department said.
The National Family Violence Prevention Legal Services Forum says the increased charges have hurt families.
In its submission, it argues that the impact of fee increases of most concern was that victims of family violence often have limited access to financial resources and are living on very low incomes.
“Economic abuse is very common in situations of family violence,” the forum says. “Clients may feel pressure to settle cases earlier, or accept unfavourable terms to avoid higher costs.”
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