House of Representatives

Dr HAINES (Indi) (17:08): I rise to express sincere concerns about this bill, which I intend to oppose. Subsuming our standalone specialist Family Court into one of the busiest court administrations in this nation will do more harm than good. Any reform should strengthen a system, not diminish specialisation, especially when that system is designed to support families and children through some of the most difficult times in their lives. Justice must be timely, and in the case of the Family Court the delays are well known. But justice is not and should not be obsessed with achieving speed and efficiency dividends.

These reforms will strip back tailored systems and corporate knowledge that have taken decades to develop—everything from specialist staff who can identify and intervene in family violence to tailored procedures for vulnerable children giving evidence as witnesses. It’s no secret that the Family Court faces workload and resourcing challenges, but so does the Federal Circuit Court, which also struggles to manage a caseload of less complex family matters alongside numerous other areas of law, including migration, bankruptcy and workplace law. A pen stroke to merge the two does not solve either of these problems.

When this proposal was announced back in May 2018, a broad coalition of law councils, bar associations and community legal centres across the nation flatly opposed it, including the Hume Riverina Community Legal Service in my electorate of Indi, and the Victorian law council. Even after consultation and the committee process over in the Senate, this coalition of stakeholders still opposed these reforms. Why? Because there is no evidence base for it and because there are better ways to achieve progress that are not as blunt as this bill, such as the Family Court 2.0 model.

As an independent, I am committed to evaluating each and every bill that passes through this place on its individual merits. Among other questions I ask myself are these ones: does this bill have a robust evidence base? Is this bill founded on principles of good governance? Does it serve the people it’s intended to serve? I am sorry to say that this bill fails to answer many of those questions.

This proposal has been pulled out of thin air following a six-week desktop review this government commissioned via a private consulting firm. Even the final report from that private consulting firm did not endorse this proposal. In 2019, the Australian Law Reform Commission completed a landmark report on the family law system which included 60 recommendations for reform. The ALRC consulted with hundreds of stakeholders and carefully considered the family law system in Australia and its future. Nowhere in that report is the notion of merging these two courts entertained.

We should be doing all we can to respond to the family violence crisis in Australia. It’s a well-known fact that the majority of matters lodged in family courts involve allegations of family violence. More than 30 per cent of people who seek help from community legal centres experience family violence. Dismantling our specialist Family Court model would be a retrograde step and put those at risk of family violence in greater peril.

The family law system remains woefully underfunded. We should be investing in proper resourcing and reform that has vision, not trying to drag and drop our way out of this crisis. We should be investing in reforms like those recommended by the ALRC—which the government has been slow to respond to—such as simplifying children’s orders, improving access to family counselling and consultants, and supporting wraparound family law pathway networks that build in community health and domestic violence services. That’s what we should be doing. This is not a bill I can support. We must not destroy our specialist Family Court based on a false belief that a merger will fix it or, even worse, bury the challenges that confront it.

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