Thursday, 31 May 2018

2GB – Sydney Live



Subjects: Family Court Reform

BEN FORDHAM: Well finally, there is some good news for families embroiled in our broken Family Court system. I previewed this yesterday. For a long time, we've been hearing from parents who are absolutely beside themselves as they pour bucket loads of money into the pockets of lawyers, and they're left waiting and waiting and waiting to see their kids. There are some who've spent four years battling to be able to see their children. Others have gone broke in the process, and these are tough times, and the system seems to only make them tougher. Hopefully it is about to get better. The Federal Government has announced a massive overhaul of the court structure in a bid to make sure disputes are resolved faster. So, from the start of next year, the Federal Circuit Court of Australia and the Family Court of Australia will be merged. That will stop a growing problem where families spend months disputing their case in one court, only to be transferred to the other and having to start all over again. The government is predicting the streamlined system will see an extra 8000 cases resolved every year and that must be music to the ears of fed up families caught in drawn-out legal battles.

Christian Porter is the Attorney-General. He joins us from our Parliament House studio in Canberra. Attorney-General, good afternoon.


BEN FORDHAM: This must be music to the ears of a lot of families. I know that this is the early stages of your announcement and this review, but you would know through, going through this process, there are a lot of broken families out there and this seems to be a broken court system.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I mean, of course it's a miserable time for families when they enter the court system and the job of government is to provide a system that makes that as quick and as low cost and as effective process as possible, not to sort of drag it out. Because when people are in each other’s faces in the system that causes more misery, it worsens the situation terribly for children and you can't just tinker around the edges here. We've known about this problem for ten years. There's very significant evidence available about how having these two courts just isn't working and the example that you gave about people being like family law footballs bouncing from court to court, there are 20,000 or so listings every year for final orders, so families who go to the court and they need the court to resolve the disputes between them, and 1200 families end up being moved from one court to the other court. So for instance, if you get transferred from the Federal Circuit Court to the Family Court, that takes on average 11 months and then you end up in the Family Court and you have to start again. So during this miserable time in people's lives imagine the extra stress and expense and cost in legal fees and the family is really not well served…plus, it is a complete waste of the resources of the court. And so fixing up even that one problem, which is the transfers between the divisions we think will allow the resources to be freed up to deal with hundreds more matters a year, which is what's going to allow us to decrease waiting times.

BEN FORDHAM: What do you say to the dads who contact me and say, look, the Family Law Court system is weighted to advantage the mothers? You know, that mothers are given the right to look after the kids while these things are being sorted out and the dads have just got to wait and hope that they're going to be given an hour here or a day there.

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, what we've done here at the Turnbull Government is deal with the things that we can deal with first, which is the structure of the court system. My predecessor George Brandis commissioned the first thorough ALRC review of the actual law that pertains to family settlements and children and access and custody, and that Law Reform Commission report is going to report in March of next year. So, it's that report that will effectively deal with those substantive matters of law. This is the first step, though, to thoroughly fix the things that we know that we can fix now, which is the structure, and this new court will be given $4 million to totally rewrite all of its forms, processes and rules and procedures and practice directions from the ground up so that it can be a court whose processes take into account the fact that families don't want to be in there for too long. They want matters dealt with as expeditiously and as cheaply as possible. So, this will not fix every (issue) and we have to wait for the substantive Law Reform Commission report, which goes to those issues of law about custody and access. But this does go to achieving a goal which is very important for families, which is less time in court, less money spent on legal fees.

BEN FORDHAM: So the backlog of Family Law cases has ballooned to 21,000 from 17,200 about five years ago, so that's going to take a long time to clear. And I've had emails, I read them on air yesterday, where families are waiting two years, three years, four years, I think the average wait is about 17 months or so. I mean realistically - and I know that you want to make sure that we don't get ahead of ourselves here as far as expectations - but realistically how long can people expect to wait once they problems are sorted out?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, the average times of resolution in the Family Court has grown from 11 months in recent times to 17 months. That's clearly too long. If you want to have that tracking back the other way and turn 17 months into 14, 12 and get it down to reasonable times, you absolutely must embrace the reform that we have engaged in here and that we will present to Parliament. Because there's no point in just increasing resources to a structure that's fundamentally inefficient, that has two courts, two different sets of rules, people bouncing between court to court, not enough attention directed at the early stages of triaging and assessing different matters to work out what their complexity is and allocating them early to a judge who will take the matter right through to completion. You must fix the structure if you're going to start reversing that trend of longer waiting times so that we get, in due course, shorter waiting times.

BEN FORDHAM: Okay, if you're amalgamating the Federal Circuit Court and the Family Court, there are concerns today from some in the legal fraternity who say: hang on a moment, this might mean that we don't have specialist judges handling family law cases. Would that be a reality?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, all of the existing judges will transfer either across to division one, where the family court judges will go, or division two, where the Federal Circuit Court judges will go. They're all very skilled. The Federal Circuit Court now does 85 per cent of all family law matters and they do that in a relatively lower cost way and in an efficient way. So the idea that we're going to miss out on personnel I don't think is a very accurate assessment of what we're doing, and indeed one of the fundamental changes here is that appeals, rather than going from the Federal Circuit Court to the Family Court, will go from the single new court up to the higher court known as the Federal Court. So some of the most skilled judges in Australia, probably outside the seven on the High Court, are going to be the people hearing appeals from this new court and I think that is also going to bring a whole range of extra skills and swiftness to the way in which we deal with matters. The enemy to families in family law is long wait times.

BEN FORDHAM: Yeah, we can only hope this sorts itself out but we need to be realistic though too, I mean, it's never going to be a perfect system, even when I spoke to you before about dads having to wait and hope that they're going to be able to see their kids. I mean, when mums and dads go their separate ways and there are kids involved, the kids have to be with one of them and the mum and dad probably don't want to be together while all that's going on. There is always going to be one unhappy party and there's always ‘he said and she said’ and maybe the truth lies in the middle somewhere. So, anyway we commend your efforts in trying to do something about it.

I better just ask you about Michaelia Cash before I let you go, Attorney-General, because she will be joining us, the Minister for Jobs, after 4 o'clock this afternoon. She has been issued with a subpoena to give evidence in the Federal Court in relation to raids on officers of the Australian Workers' Union last year and whether or not she knew anything about it. I know she's already said that she didn't know anything about these raids or whether her office tipped off people in the media about these raids. There were some in the Labor Party suggesting this afternoon that she shouldn't be sitting in parliament while she's been issued with a subpoena and waiting to give evidence in court. What do you say as Attorney-General?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: That's just ridiculous. I mean, the reality is that from time to time Members of Parliament and former Members of Parliament are required to give evidence on a variety of matters in court. I mean, the idea that you could have a subpoena issued against you and that should mean that you don't sit in Parliament is just absurd. If you took up that rule every side of politics would be offering and issuing - trying to issue subpoenas against every other side of politics. I mean that's just bizarre. And look, fundamentally this case is about whether or not a very substantive amount of money that was the hard-earned money of members of the union was given by the union to GetUp! Which operates totally contrary to the interests of those hardworking members with or without authorisation. It's as simple as that. Now yes, there's a subpoena been issued, there's a number of parties in this matter. That's nothing particularly unusual.

BEN FORDHAM: You're confident that Michaelia Cash will be cleared of any wrongdoing?

ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, she's not accused of any wrongdoing. I mean, the people in this who are in court, pursuant to an investigation, are the people in the union who allowed a payment to go to GetUp! and the question at issue in this trial is whether that payment was authorised or whether it was not authorised. That's the issue here. That's the question they're trying to resolve. The fact that witnesses or documents might be subpoenaed in furtherance of the court process to resolve that central issue is not at all unusual.

BEN FORDHAM: We appreciate you joining us from our studios at Parliament House, Attorney-General. Thank you.


BEN FORDHAM: Christian Porter, the Attorney-General, joining us and we'll catch up with Michaelia Cash after 4 o'clock this afternoon.