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The new Family Court: promising aspirations, but can they be achieved?

Major family law reforms are touted as a revolutionary new approach to repair a broken system. While we hope it’s the fix our community has been waiting for, only time will tell – and so far, we’re off to a shaky start.

On 1 September 2021 the Family Court of Australia will be abolished and replaced by the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia with new rules.

The new Court’s overarching purpose is to facilitate the just resolution of disputes according to law, as quickly, inexpensively, and efficiently as possible.

With an intention to resolve 90% of family law matters within 12 months here in Newcastle, it is difficult to see how this will be achieved where Division 2 of the Court – being the entry point for all family law matters – is already dangerously under-resourced. There’s currently only one judge to every 750 matters; more than double the national average. This is unsustainable – for litigants and for judges.

The new Court aims to implement a fresh case management pathway, prioritising dispute resolution. It’s a welcomed approach to remove some of the animosity which too often infiltrates family law proceedings. However, the dispute resolution focus is resource-heavy, requiring adequate numbers of registrars to perform the roles of mediators, and court child experts to provide important insights and assistance families need to achieve child-focussed outcomes. To succeed, it will require more than a one-off injection of government spending. What’s needed is a commitment to long-term funding.

With a new Court comes new rules, which will be implemented from 1 September 2021. Even though the legislation creating the new Court was passed in February 2021, now – 2 weeks out from the commencement date – the rules are not yet available. To the frustration of those trying to assist families in the system, the information is being distributed in a piecemeal fashion, with a promise that it will be provided by 1 September 2021.

The aspirations of the new Court provide hope – a vision of a vastly better experience than the system we are leaving behind. However, whether those hopes can be met remains in question and will rely on the commitment and co-operation of the Court, the lawyers appearing in it, and the families who use it. As a legal professional, I want it to work. Our community deserves a system that works.…

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