Commonwealth Attorney-General Michaelia Cash has described the new two-structure court, which was widely opposed by members of the legal profession, as ‘an important moment in the Australian judicial system’s history’.
The merger of the two federal courts (FCFC) commenced on 1 September, based on the rationale that combining the institutions would address ‘confusion, costs and delays’ experienced by families.
“The FCFC provides a single point of entry to the family courts, with a consistent set of rules, processes and procedures, which will make the system simpler and less confusing,” a statement from the AG read.
“The FCFC also provides for an effective case management approach in family law to support a simpler, faster and cheaper system, while maintaining a focus on the safety of everyone affected.”
Among the prominent lawyers who have vocally opposed the merger are 11 retired judges of the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court, in addition to former chief justices the Honourable Elizabeth Evatt AC and the Honourable Alastair Nicholson AO RFD QC.
In an open letter published in November 2019, the group of judges underscored that the merger would ‘result in a loss of structural, systemic specialisation and dismantle the appeal division’.
The merger even attracted concerns from the Law Council of Australia (LCA), Community Legal Centres Australia, Women’s Legal Services Australia and National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, who said that combining the courts would spark “devastating impacts” on families.
But Cash said on Wednesday that the new FCFC would ensure that family law appeals were managed more efficiently because all Division 1 judges of the merged court would be able to hear appeals.
“The Morrison government is committed to reducing unnecessary costs and delays in the federal family courts,” the AG said.
“That is why we progressed legislation through parliament to bring together the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court under a unified administrative structure, the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia.”
Cash also underscored that recent reforms saw criteria for the government’s appointment of family judges had been strengthened. Moving forward, all judges hearing family law matters in either Division of the FCFC would need to be capable of dealing with family law matters and family violence, she said.
“This is important to ensure that judicial appointees are suited to deal with the unfortunate reality that many matters that come before the family law courts involve family violence,” the statement read.
The AG added that technological improvements to the court’s operation such as its new website, and the judiciary’s openness to innovation would help court users navigate the restructured system.
“As a result of these changes, more cases will be finalised each year, making a real difference to everyday Australians at a difficult time in their lives.
“I congratulate Chief Justice Alstergren, judges of the family courts and court staff, for their significant achievement in preparing for the commencement of the new structure,” she said.