Community legal services fear they will struggle after Family Court merger
24 February 2021 at 5:00 pm
Over 155 advocates from a range of professions are opposing the court merger
Advocates say they will struggle to provide the extra support needed for vulnerable clients going through family legal disputes, following a decision to merge the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court.
The merger has been three years in the making, with the Morrison government arguing that the change will resolve an additional 8,000 cases a year, and make it easier for people living in rural areas to access the court.
The bill to merge the two courts passed through the senate last week, despite long-held concerns from advocates that closing down the specialist court would have a devastating impact on families.
Over 155 stakeholders representing a range of professions and community organisations have now signed on to an open letter opposing the changes, with signatories including 11 retired Family Court and Federal Circuit Court (FCC) judges, and the former Chief Justices the Hon Elizabeth Evatt AC and the Hon Alastair Nicholson AO RFD QC.
Vulnerable people will slip through the cracks
Since the Family Law Court was first established in the 1970’s, the number of family violence and child abuse cases have increased significantly.
CEO of Community Legal Centres Australia Nassim Arrage told Pro Bono News he feared the merger would mean a loss of the specialist help required to deal with complex, traumatic cases normally dealt with by the Family Law Court.
“Although the bill has provision for some training of judges, we will not necessarily have judges who just day in, day out, live and breathe family law,” Arrage said.
He said that for community legal centres – which predominantly helped women on low incomes, women from migrant and refugee backgrounds, and women with a disability – the change would mean supporting their clients through longer and more difficult processes.
“How do we support clients who have to go through that kind of court system and then maybe appeal in front of a judge who just doesn’t understand family violence?” Arrage said.
“It will be the women and children that suffer, but obviously because they’re under pressure they will require more support from the services that we provide.”
He said there had been no word from government on whether or not more funding would be provided for services to provide this support.
“Actually the silence on this has been deafening,” he said.
While Arrage said it was “highly unlikely” advocates would be able to overturn the bill, it was now critical to make sure the new FCC and service providers were equipped with the right resources.
“This doesn’t just mean training of judges, it means training of registrars and other support staff who are able to make sure that they identify issues of family violence and respond appropriately as people move through the court system,” he said.
“It’s also critical that community legal centres are given more funding to be able to support clients going through that system.”