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’


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