The Federal government announced today its intention to combine the existing two-Court federal family court system in Australia into one, larger Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (“FCFCA”) commencing 1 January 2019.
What does this mean for you though? Currently, there are two Courts, one that is the ‘higher’ Court – the Family Court deals with complex property matters, serious allegations of child abuse or particularly serious parenting arguments, International parenting matters and protracted disputes; and the Federal Circuit Court deals with the bulk of family law matters.
At present, your lawyer has to decide which Court you ‘belong’ in when starting your case. It is often not easy to know this at the first stage, and choosing the wrong Court may mean that you are sent between Courts while this is clarified or when new issues arise. Additionally, starting Court proceedings for property disputes in the Family Court is currently ‘easier’ than in the Federal Circuit Court, as you are not required to file an affidavit in support of your application at first. Drafting a good, comprehensive and accurate affidavit in support of your case can be time-consuming (and costly) and so it is a quick option for lawyers in a rush to simply go to the Family Court even if the property case is not otherwise complex enough to justify being in that Court.
The combined Court will mean a single point of entry for all matters, which will then be directed in the right place. This might be considered a bit like ‘triage’ that a hospital might conduct, prioritising and assessing cases as they come in and linking them with services, hopefully sooner than they would be otherwise.
The additional factor to consider in the government’s announcement is that appeals from the FCFCA will no longer be dealt with by an appeals section of the Family Court, but will be dealt with in a new division of the Federal Court of Australia. What does this mean? Family law judges in the Family Court who currently spend time hearing appeals will be available to hear cases from the start, potentially meaning more front-line resources in terms of time and Judges.
Of course, at present this is just an announcement. Once the government releases its proposal in more details, we will be able to assess how effective this might be at clearing some of the delays currently affecting the family law system.