Senate brake on court reforms
The Morrison government looks certain to miss the January 1 start date it had set to create a new federal super court, with a key independent senator vowing to delay hearings into the reform.
Attorney-General Christian Porter has introduced legislation to merge the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court in a bid to streamline the family law system. Mr Porter wanted the new Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia to be operational from January 1. Family Court Chief Justice John Pascoe is set to retire in December.
Yet many lawyers are strongly opposed to the court’s restructure, and have warned that crippling delays for families will not be fixed without more resources.
The Senate had referred the bill to the legal and constitutional affairs committee for inquiry by April 15, to allow time to consider a report from the Australian Law Reform Commission due on March 31. But this would have made it all but impossible to ensure passage of the legislation before the next federal election.
The Coalition used its numbers on the committee to move the reporting date forward to November 26, so the bill could be dealt with in the final two sitting weeks of the year. It allowed until last Friday for submissions.
Last week, crossbench senator Rex Patrick successfully moved a motion to push the deadline for submissions back to November 23, following a complaint from the Law Council of Australia that the government had not allowed enough time for scrutiny.
Despite the delayed deadline for submissions, committee chair Ian Macdonald announced on Friday that the committee would press ahead with hearings in the last week of October and first week of November in five places.
Senator Patrick told The Australian he would move a motion this week to force the committee to delay the hearings until after the closing date for submissions, and was confident he had the numbers to support the move.
“I do not want hearings to start until we have all the submissions,” he said. “The government needs to take its foot off the accelerator and do this properly.”
He said it was “unorthodox” to conduct hearings before submissions had been completed. Senator Patrick said he was in favour of the court reform because it was clear change was needed, but it was possible the inquiry would find there was a better way to achieve it. “We know what is being proposed is better than the current system, but we don’t know if it’s the best solution,” he said.
Mr Porter said the reforms were “urgently needed” so families could have their disputes dealt with as quickly as possible, and the government would continue to work with senators to ensure they could start from January 1.
Opposition legal affairs spokesman Mark Dreyfus and Labor senator Louise Pratt said the government had only consulted the chief justices of the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court. They said the government had thumbed its nose at the Senate, ignoring demands for more consultation.
‘We know what is proposed is better than the current system, but we don’t know if it’s the best solution’
SENATOR REX PATRICK