Federal Parliament - Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia Bill 2019

November 30, 2020

Dr ALYI stand here to speak on the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia Bill 2019 as a bit of a veteran of the Family Court. I think it's quite well known that I'm onto my third husband now. This one's a keeper though! In all seriousness, I have had the experience of having to go through the Family Court under some very trying circumstances. I currently sit as a member of the Joint Select Committee on Australia's Family Law System, of which you, Mr Deputy Speaker Andrews, are chair. I don't want to speak on your behalf, Deputy Speaker, but I think everybody on that committee has had moments where we absolutely despair at some of the stories that we are hearing about the experiences that people are having in the Family Court system as it currently is, regardless of which parent it is or whether they have children. The experiences of people going through the family law system at the moment really do warrant some special attention. There is no doubt that the system absolutely does need reform.

But this is not the kind of reform that the system needs. Indeed, the Member for Isaacs very eloquently earlier today gave us the background on the family law court, its inception and the purpose for which it was developed in the 1970s. That purpose was a response to and a recognition of the need to have a specialised family court to deal with issues of family separation, particularly with regard to the interests of children but also to the interests of parties, in a situation where a marriage irreconcilably breaks down and where they have to go to court. And let's not forget that not everyone ends up in the Family Court; it's a small number of cases overall that end up in the Family Court.

So the history of the Family Court and the intent of the Family Court, I believe, are worth noting. But they are not only worth noting; they are worth saving. Absolutely they are worth saving. The expectation of a family law system to deliver the outcomes that the Whitlam government had as a vision of this specialist family law court, I believe, need to be reaffirmed and recommitted to.

Effectively, however, this legislation does away with the family law court altogether. It does away with the specialised court for family law matters. It really is the culmination of successive years of decimation of the Australian family law system. Over the last seven years, the system has been undermined by absolute neglect: neglect by a government that was led by Tony Abbott, neglect by a government that was led by Malcolm Turnbull and now neglect by a government currently led by this Prime Minister. And the response that we've got from this government is to simply introduce legislation to do away with the Family Court altogether, merging it with the Federal Circuit Court. It is a response that, as previous members from this side have pointed out, is completely unsupported by the empirical evidence, by any of the expert organisations in the field or, indeed, by people who are going through the system.

Of all the submissions that the joint select committee on family law has looked at, none of them have said, 'Abolish the Family Court.' It is not mentioned once in the interim report from this committee, and it has not been mentioned in various reports and various reviews of the family law system. Even the suggestion of abolishing the Family Court is not one that has come from within the sector, it is not one that has come from the people who have experience with the Family Court and it is not even one that has come from any Government or Parliamentary inquiry into the Family Court. It appears that it is merely a figment of this Attorney-General's imagination and an outcome this Attorney-General seems intent on achieving, and he's on his own. Nobody out there—none of the organisations, nobody involved in the Family Court system—is backing that outcome.

The family law system over the last seven years has completely been decimated by this Government. There are ways to fix it, but this is not the way to fix it. Here is what this bill does: it doesn't fix the huge workloads that judges have. It doesn't fix the desperate need for more resources. It doesn't fix any of the issues that have been outlined in the interim report from the joint select committee on Australian family law. It doesn't fix any of those. What it does do, effectively, is abolish the standalone specialist Family Court as we know it, collapsing it into another court that is already one of the busiest, most under-resourced and overburdened courts: the Federal Circuit Court. In doing so, it harms vulnerable children and families in need of specialist family law assistance.

The families that end up at the family law court—I'll tell us this from experience—didn't get there because we managed to work things out amicably and figure it out amongst ourselves. We got there because of particular circumstances. In many cases, domestic violence is involved. I've always been in awe of people who can end a relationship and remain friends—those people that end up going to each other's wedding and doing all of that. I've never been one of those people. And let me tell you, when a family ends up in the family law court, it's because they have reached a stage where every form of mediation has broken down and they are at an acute stage of needing that assistance.

The supposed merger that will ultimately lead to the abolishment of the family law court will also result in increased cost, time and stress for families and for children. It will place further stress on Federal Circuit Court judges, who are already struggling under humongous workloads. It will fail to alleviate fundamental problems plaguing the family law system. Speakers before me on this side, as well as the Shadow Attorney-General, the Member for Isaacs, have very clearly stated what those problems are, and they very clearly come down to one issue: the issue of resourcing. Overburdened judges with huge case loads resulting in incredibly long waiting times are the heart of the problem. Instead of addressing that problem, the Attorney-General proposes instead to do away with the court altogether. It's not rocket science here—problem, solution. Finally, one of the things that this bill does in proposing a merger is fail to address the risk of family violence for any of the families that fall through the cracks.

The Law Council has developed a very comprehensive briefing note, and I note that members before me have referred to this briefing note. They are very much opposed to the merger of the Family Court, but they're not alone. In fact, there are more than 110 stakeholders who oppose this merger for the various reasons that I've just outlined. When you have 110 different stakeholders who work in the system—who intimately know the system, who work with clients, who work with families, who work with victims of family violence—say that they oppose a merger, they oppose this bill and they oppose this move by the Attorney-General, why on earth would you persist?

One of the jobs that we have here is to listen—to listen to people, to listen to experts, to take the advice and to listen to what Australians want—and not to thumb our noses at the experts and thumb our noses at the stakeholders and say: 'No, no, I'm sorry. I know better.' I'm sorry, the Attorney-General does not know better than the Law Council and 110 other stakeholders, who have very clearly articulated not that they oppose this bill for no reason but that they oppose this bill for this reason: because it will not deliver the kind of reform that is needed to make the Australian family law system workable. What it will do is exacerbate already trying and stressful conditions for families by merging the court into the Federal Circuit Court, where judges there are already dealing with astronomical case loads and astronomical workloads.

I'm not going to speak much more about this, because I know that there are many more of my colleagues on this side who want to speak about this matter and why we, along with 110 other stakeholders, oppose this bill, but I point out the stark contrast between the number of people on the Labor side who are standing up to speak on this bill, standing up as a voice for their communities, standing up as a voice for the families and the children and the predominantly women escaping domestic and family violence who will be impacted by this bill, and compare that number to the meagre number of—what was it?—two speakers from the government side. There are two speakers on this bill from the government side. I think that speaks volumes. I think that says a lot about just how much this Government is willing to listen to experts and willing to listen to those people who are impacted by the changes proposed by this arrogant Attorney-General who refuses to listen to advice, refuses to heed the evidence and is just following his own whim and his own outcome for a sector that he obviously knows very little about.