Attwood Marshall Lawyers Family Law Senior Associate Carlu Booth discusses how the Family Court merger has helped families resolve disputes more effectively and in less time.
In February 2021, two Acts were passed by Parliament, which merged the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court to become the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (FCFCOA).
Although the COVID-19 pandemic was not the instigator of the courts requiring additional funding and rejuvenation, it did, however, speed up the implementation of online operations of the courts.
Prior to COVID-19, there were already significant delays being experienced with family law matters proceeding through the court system. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic made a bad situation worse and caused an increase in cases involving issues of relationship disputes, family violence, and child abuse. With the Family Court system at breaking point, an excessive backlog of cases accumulated due to unsuitable practices to meet the growing demand in this sector.
With critical changes needed, the merger took place and intended to resolve the large number of cases awaiting judicial determination while reducing wait times for new family law matters and protecting vulnerable parties to a dispute. The goal was to achieve a greater emphasis on early dispute resolution between families and increase the focus on assessing the risk of abuse or harm.
We are pleased to see that the merger has facilitated an 18 per cent reduction in the backlog of cases, with more than 3,800 matters determined since the merger took place. This has only been achieved through the improved resources and systems now available.
Registrars have conducted over 4,100 dispute resolution events, predominantly in matters relating to parenting disputes, with an average settlement rate of 55 per cent. Many of these matters had been pending in the system for years, with parties to the matter finally able to move on with their lives.
What has changed?
The system’s most significant changes that have taken place to date to support families embroiled in a dispute include:
- A boost in the number of family court judges. There are now 111 judges, which is an increase of 52 judges since 2018.
- Tripling the number of registrars working in the system since 2019, bringing the number of registrars to 110.
- A 38 per cent increase in child court experts; 106 experts are now working in the system.
- The introduction of the National Contravention List helps deal with complaints about compliance and identify whether there is an increased risk to participants or children during the time it takes for their case to be determined.
- The roll-out of two pilot programs aimed to see a significant number of cases settled by registrars, ensuring that resolution of each matter is achieved as early as possible.
The success of the pilot programs
The first program introduced was the Priority Property Pools under $500,000 cases (PPP500). This program was piloted in four capital cities: Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne and Parramatta. It was designed for “small claim” property cases to improve the responsiveness of the family courts by providing a simple way of resolving property disputes while minimising the risks and costs associated, whilst trying to preserve each party’s assets as effectively as possible. The results were impressive, with 77 per cent of cases being settled by registrars and fewer than 5 per cent progressing to be heard before a judge.
The second program, the Lighthouse Project, was promised $54.9m in last year’s federal budget and is currently being piloted in Adelaide, Brisbane and Paramatta. The program is an innovative approach taken by courts in the FCCOA registries to screen for risk of violence and other factors while primarily focusing on improving outcomes for families involved in the family law system. The approach involves a three-part process: screening, triage, and case management pathways.
The program has proved successful, and the court hopes to roll it out nationally.
As part of the launch of the revised system, data collection has been a critical component in identifying areas that require further funding or improvement.
The revised system for collecting Notice of Child Abuse, Family Violence or Risk Forms showed a devastating number of parenting cases filed in the financial year 2021/2022 where a matter was referred to the state or territory child welfare agency because of alleged risks to vulnerable children.
In 70 per cent of cases, either one or both parents alleged child abuse, or risk of abuse, was a factor. In 58 per cent of cases, one or both parents stated that mental health issues experienced by the other had harmed or risked harming a child.
The data that has been collected demonstrates just how prevalent domestic and family violence is in the court system and the community.
Unfortunately, it shows that more still needs to be done to tackle these issues, not just at the stage a family law matter has progressed to the court system, but to try to prevent domestic and family violence from occurring or escalating in the first place.
What does this mean for families needing dispute resolution?
The amalgamation of the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia has improved the family court system’s inefficiencies and delays. It is promising that these changes have enabled faster and more cost-effective resolution of disputes.
For cases that have exhausted alternative dispute resolution strategies and proceed to litigation, the new Court provides a modern, transparent, and efficient system of justice that guides parties through the process as safely, quickly, and fairly as possible without undue delay.
Attwood Marshall Lawyers – helping families resolve disputes with as little conflict as possible
Attwood Marshall Lawyers have a dedicated team of family lawyers who practice exclusively in this complex area of law. When parties to a family law matter need legal advice, our lawyers can negotiate effectively and ensure your best interests, and the best interests of any children involved are always the priority.
Our passionate family lawyers are highly experienced in children and parenting matters, as well as helping people navigate divorce and separation, negotiate property settlements, draft binding financial agreements, and help people in domestic and family violence situations. They approach each and every matter with compassion and are ready to support their clients through what is no doubt one of the toughest times in their lives.
It is our aim to try to resolve matters at the earliest opportunity to reduce costs and allow all parties involved to move on with their lives.
If you need assistance with a family law matter, please contact our Family Law Department Manager, Donna Tolley, on 07 5506 8241, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1800 621 071 at any time.
Attwood Marshall Lawyer’s Senior Family Lawyer Michael Twohill calls for specialist DVO police unit in Tweed to support families experiencing domestic violence