On 23 February 2021, the Federal Parliament passed two Acts which merge the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court into one Court.
This new Court, named the Federal Circuit Court and Family Court of Australia (FCFCA), will commence on 1 September 2021.
Previously, in the two court system, the Federal Circuit Court was the main entry point for family law matters. It was only in complex matters that an Application would be filed in the Family Court (for instance, in cases involving serious sexual abuse or mental health issues, international child abduction, complex corporate structures etc).
While each Court had a separate set of rules and procedures, in both Courts there were long delays with litigants sometimes waiting up to three years for a trial and then a further few months or even years for a judgment to be released.
Parliament says the newly passed legislation will resolve the backlog of unheard matters and reduce waiting times for new matters by implementing one entry point and a single set of rules for all family law matters.
The FCFCA will comprise of two divisions:
- Division 1 – This Division will only deal with complex family law matters and appeals.
- Division 2 – This Division will be the single-entry point for all family law matters except for appeals. Complex matters may be sent to Division 1 upon the direction of the Chief Justice. Judges will preside over a combination of family law and federal law matters, such as employment matters, immigration, etc.
The legislation was widely opposed by members of the family law profession, with a concern that the merger will ultimately lead to less specialisation and that more funding for specialist family law judges, rather than yet another revamp of the structure, is really what is required in an overburdened system. Advocates in the domestic violence sphere have been particularly concerned that judges without extensive training regarding the complex intersection of family law and violence may be called upon to hear and determine matters involving these issues, further exposing vulnerable parties and children to such violence.
It remains to be seen whether the reforms are simply a reshuffle of judges in a still under-resourced system, or whether more positive outcomes will follow for litigants who now have more timely access to court intervention and easier to follow processes.
For couples working their way towards resolution of their parenting and financial issues following separation and their lawyers, it is business as usual.