Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall MP tells the Parliament that the Family Law Court Merger is extremely disappointing

18 February, 2021


It's a very disappointing day to have to stand up and see the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia Bill 2019 come back to this House with the Senate having passed it with these amendments. Let's be really clear: this is not a good outcome for the most vulnerable in our society when there is a breakdown of their family relationship and they find themselves having to resort to the courts. This merger of the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court is so disappointing. The government has completely failed to listen to the Law Council and 155 stakeholder groups, including 13 retired judges, who oppose this bill.

The specialised Family Court has been the envy of many countries around the world. I've had the pleasure of practising as a barrister in that jurisdiction and I know its challenges. I certainly know it needs assistance and, mostly, it needs resources. What it doesn't need is to be abolished and merged into the Federal Circuit Court.

What's been interesting is the justification that we've heard from the government, but also from fellow crossbenchers in the Senate, as to why they have supported it. I think it is motivated by personal experience, I would say a personal vendetta against an experience in that court, that will now impact millions of people's lives in how they have recourse to justice. I think there is an inability to recognise the experience of those who had some 40-plus years of experience, believing their own view is somehow more informed than so many people who have practised.

The amendment before the House today is that there be at least 25 judges. Let's be really clear about the situation at the moment. I contacted the Law Council before coming down to the chamber. There are currently 32 judges, excluding Western Australia, which is also excluded in this amendment. The amendment says we'll have at least 25. Let's be clear about what we're doing here: we're going backwards. We're going to have fewer judges than we currently have. The data shows that what they need is not a reduction in judges; what they need is seven additional judges, one per jurisdiction, to make a significant difference to the time delays in the process through the system. Currently, there are eight positions not filled, so it's clear there has been a withholding and a delay in appointments for political motivations to get this bill and this merger happening in this place. We have 10 judges due for retirement next year. This jurisdiction is facing a very real, immediate loss of skill and ability to hear matters.

We've heard a lot of people in this place talk about the delays in the system. The delays are huge. It's incredibly distressing for people taking such personal matters to the court. They are at their wit's end, and because of either parenting or property matters, they cannot resolve it. They need some attention but instead they get delays because the system is underfunded and under-resourced. What this amendment does, let's be really clear, is provide for fewer services, not more. This is not a streamlining or an efficiency.

Where has this merger come from? This merger has come from a six-week desktop review of potential efficiencies conducted by PwC. It was done in 2018. The authors of the report appeared before the Senate committee, and all of their claimed efficiencies were dismantled in the Senate committee. Even the authors of the report walked away from the numbers because the desktop review only lasted six weeks and they did not interview lawyers or families with experience in the Family Court system or practitioners in the system. What we have here is a dismantling and a merger of the Family Court against the expert advice of all those who have practised in this jurisdiction and to the detriment of so many people that rely on this system to resolve disputes. It's very disappointing to see this. This is politically motivated and not in the best interests of Australian people.