In response to ongoing complaints from both the community and lawyers about the excessive waiting times, complexity and costs involved with family law matters, the Attorney-General has made an historic announcement that the Australia’s two Family Law Courts are merging.
Currently, we have the Federal Circuit Court of Australia, which hears the majority of parenting matters and property disputes, and also the Family Court of Australia, which is reserved for more complex parenting matters and property disputes, for example, parenting matters involving claims of sexual abuse.
From 1 January 2019, the two Courts will be merged and known as the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (FCFCA). The new Court will have two divisions, Division 1 will be made up of existing Judges from the Family Court and Division 2 will be made up of existing Judges from the Federal Circuit Court.
There will also be a new Court created to hear appeals and this will be called the Family Law Appeal Division of the Federal Circuit Court. The idea of this new Court is that it will free up Judges in the new FCFCA to hear more matters and conduct more hearings.
The FCFCA will have a “single point of entry” with no more transfers of matters between different Courts. This major reform aims to reduce the complexity of applying to the Court and make the Court more efficient. The Attorney-General has stated that the FCFCA will be equipped to finalise up to 8,000 cases per year, which will dramatically reduce current waiting times.
Interestingly, this change is scheduled to take place prior to the completion of the review into the Family Law system; with that final report due to be released in March 2019 (we discussed this review in an article late last year). The timing is somewhat unusual however, the Attorney-General has indicated the change was obvious as the current structure of the Courts is not working.
As family lawyers, we welcome any change which will increase the efficiency of the Courts and assist families through one of the most difficult times in their lives. However, it remains to be seen whether the changes will be effective and result in a genuine improvement to the Family Law system.