About the Court
The Family Court of Australia is a superior court of record established by Parliament in 1975 under Chapter III of the Constitution. The Court operates under the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) and through its specialist judges and staff, helps Australians to resolve their most complex family disputes.
As outlined in the Corporate Plan, the purpose of the Court, as Australia’s superior court in family law, is to:
- determine cases with the most complex law, facts and parties
- cover specialised areas in family law, and
- provide national coverage as the appellate court in family law matters.
An internationally respected, specialist family court.
Austin Asche AC QC (appointed 1976, retired 1986); John Ellis AM (appointed 1976, retired 2004); Elizabeth Evatt AC (first Chief Justice of the Family Court; appointed 1976, retired 1988); and Ken Pawley (appointed 1976, retired 1986; died 1993)
The Family Court deals with more complex matters. These may include, for example:
- Parenting cases involving a child welfare agency and/or allegations of sexual abuse or serious physical abuse of a child (Magellan cases); family violence and/ or mental health issues with other complexities; multiple parties; cases where orders sought would have the effect of preventing a parent from communicating with or spending time with a child; multiple expert witnesses; complex questions of law and/or special jurisdictional issues; international child abduction under the Hague Convention; special medical procedures; and/or international relocation.
- Financial cases that involve multiple parties, valuation of complex interests in trust or corporate structures, including minority interests, multiple expert witnesses, complex questions of law and/or jurisdictional issues or complex issues concerning superannuation.
The Court also has original jurisdiction under certain Commonwealth Acts, including the:
- Marriage Act 1961
- Child Support (Registration and Collection) Act 1988
- Child Support (Assessment) Act 1989, and
- Bankruptcy Act 1966.
Outcome and program
In the 2015–16 Budget, the Australian Government announced that it would amalgamate the corporate services of the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court with the Federal Court of Australia into a single administrative body with a single appropriation. The Courts Administration Legislation Amendment Act 2016 established the amalgamated body, to be known as the Federal Court of Australia, from 1 July 2016. This approach preserves the courts’ functional and judicial independence while improving their financial sustainability.
The outcome of the Family Court is to apply and uphold the rule of law for litigants in the Family Court of Australia through the resolution of family law matters according to law, particularly more complex family law matters and through the effective management of the administrative affairs of the Court.
The Family Court has a single program under which all services are provided: Family Court of Australia (new program transferred from the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court).
Court service locations
The Federal Circuit Court of Australia provides the Family Court with registry services at family law registries in all State and Territory capital cities (except Western Australia) and also in regional and other centres.
Judges and registrars of the Court are located at the following registries:
- Sydney, and
International Framework for Court Excellence – a reflection
The Chief Justice of the Family Court, the Honourable Diana Bryant AO, announced the Court’s endorsement of the International Framework for Court Excellence (IFCE) in 2008–09.
The Chief Justice appointed Justice Murphy as Chair of the Court Excellence Committee who, in consultation with the Chief Justice, selected a committee of judges representing a range of experience and geographical diversity and seconded Jane Reynolds, Regional Registry Manager, for administrative expertise and support.
What is the IFCE?
The IFCE was put together by an international consortium consisting of groups and organisations from Europe, Asia, Australia and the United States and was originally launched in 2008. The goal of the Consortium’s effort has been the development of a framework of values, concepts and tools by which courts worldwide can voluntarily assess and improve the quality of justice and court administration they deliver no matter where the court is based.
An attraction of this framework is that it has been conceived for courts by courts. As a result, it is not a managerial system superimposed on judges. Rather, it is a model refined for the unique elements of judicial administration. Crucially, the principle of judicial independence is fundamental to it.
The framework provides a resource for assessing a court’s performance against seven detailed areas which are thought necessary for a court to be truly excellent. It provides clear guidance for courts intending to improve their performance and it provides a model methodology for continuous evaluation and improvement that is specifically designed for use by courts. It also builds upon a range of recognised organisational improvement principles while reflecting the special needs and issues that courts face.
In 2013, the Court conducted an IFCE self-assessment which was issued to all judges and staff. The survey results were analysed and published – an interim report in 2014 and a final report in 2015.
Implementation of the self-assessment recommendations commenced in 2015 and most are ongoing.
Some of the major achievements to date include:
- greater resourcing of the Appellate Division
- court governance model reformed
- technological improvements to judicial support and public services
- improved training for judges particularly regarding technology
- better judicial induction process/judicial welfare emphasis
- national case management review and court user surveys
- investment in staff development, and
- a new more responsive website.
Challenges and learnings
Challenges identified by the Court in implementing the IFCE include:
- implementation takes time in such a busy court
- the process must be regarded as long term and not a ‘quick fix’
- keeping the momentum going is a challenge
- work needs to be integrated into the mainstream business of the Court and not be a ‘special project’ off to the side, and
- scarce public funding, competition for funding and the bedding down of a series of significant changes resulting from the court’s changed administrative structure are contextual factors for the Court.
Interest in the ICFE continues to grow both domestically and internationally.
Access and inclusion
The Court continues to develop and implement plans under its access and inclusion framework. The framework aims to ensure all clients, particularly vulnerable and disadvantaged clients, receive the assistance they need to access the Court.
The framework acknowledges that justice begins well before a litigant has their first court event, and that a client’s capacity to participate in court processes is significantly influenced by the quality of information and the level of administrative support they receive.
Linking to the International Framework for Court Excellence, the framework also takes a broader view across the shared infrastructure needed to support the delivery of accessible services (e.g. information technology, training and performance development) as well as identifying the links, approaches, synergies and principles that affect justice as a whole.
The current plans under the framework are:
- Multicultural Plan
- Family Violence Plan, and
- Indigenous Action Plan.
Rewards and recognition
Queen’s Birthday Honour’s List
The Queen’s Birthday 2017 Honours List was announced by the Governor-General in June 2017.
Justice May of the Brisbane registry was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for:
‘Significant service to the law, particularly to the Family Court of Australia, to judicial administration, and to professional associations.’
The Order of Australia is the principal and most prestigious means of recognising outstanding members of the community at a national level.
Australia Day achievement medallions
The Australia Day achievement medallions are awarded to a select group of Australian citizens each year. The awards recognise excellence in contribution by employees working in both government and non-government organisations, including the courts.
The Court’s Australia Day Awards recognise the significant contribution and outstanding service provided by employees to the Court. This year’s recipients were:
Leisha Lister, Chief Justice’s Chambers
Leisha has been with the Court for 17 years and is the Executive Officer attached to the Chambers of the Chief Justice.
Throughout her 17 years with the Court, Leisha has displayed an exemplary level of leadership and played a key role in ensuring and progressing the rights of justice for all at a national and international level.
Leisha started with the Court as the Client Service Manager in South Australia before relocating to Canberra to take up the role of Executive Advisor to the Chief Executive Officer. In this role, she managed and coordinated the development of policy, research and advice to the Court. Leisha has furthered the work of the Court internationally which has supported the high standing of the Court internationally.
Leisha has successfully managed a number of significant projects for the Family Court of Australia, including the Mental Health Support Project, the Integrated Client Service Initiative, the review of the Magellan Programme involving cases of serious child abuse; the Less Adversarial Trial Education project; and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research project looking at issues facing Indigenous Australians in accessing the courts. She has also managed a number of significant international programmes in Indonesia and the Pacific.
Through her private interests, Leisha works passionately for the rights of women and girls on issues such as education, poverty alleviation, improving access to justice for women, people with a disability and vulnerable children with a particular focus on how these groups are able to access formal justice systems.
Helen Grist, Chief Justices Chambers, Melbourne registry
Helen has been with the Court for almost nine years and as the Executive Assistant to the Chief Justice, she provides administrative support to the Chief Justice and the Court.
During her tenure, Helen has coordinated and managed large scale legal and judicial conferences. In that capacity Helen has also provided assistance to members of the judiciary throughout the world.
Helen has proven herself to be an extremely valuable asset to the Chief Justice and the Court, having managed the annual judges’ meetings, ceremonial sittings for newly appointed judges and those retiring, as well as hosting numerous international delegations of judges when they visit the Court.
Helen is a highly committed staff member who is more than willing to assist with any project, small or large. She has a high attention to detail, is extremely organised, is a strong team player and is a highly regarded and valued member of the Chief Justice’s Chambers and the Court.
Janet Durham, Melbourne registry
Janet has been with the Court for almost 13 years and is currently the Judicial Associate to Justice Bennett. Janet began work with the Court as a Court Officer and, after four years, she accepted the role in Justice Bennett’s chambers, where she has been ever since.
Janet has taught many staff in Melbourne about court processes and procedures. She has become a ‘go to’ person for advice and guidance when staff are unsure of what needs to be done. Janet has educated herself not only about the way things work at the Court, but about what particular processes are intended to achieve. Her skills as a judicial associate make her an invaluable asset to the Court, her judge and her colleagues.
Janet also appreciates the importance of the Court’s role during what is often the most difficult time in people’s lives. When cases with an international element require Justice Bennett to sit late, Janet is always there to support her Honour long after the building has otherwise closed.
Janet is highly respected by her colleagues throughout the registry. She has a holistic understanding of and respect for the importance of each person’s role in the Court and has mentored countless junior legal associates.
The Family Court of Australia’s Twitter account has been operating since October 2012. Twitter provides followers with timely, relevant and easy to access information about the Family Court of Australia and family law issues. Followers are predominately made up of legal professionals, law students, journalists and members of the general public.
During 2016–17 the Court:
- gained 775 followers, bringing the total number of followers to 3646
- sent 360 tweets, made up of 32 plain text, 174 page links and 154 photo links – an average of almost seven tweets per week
- was re-tweeted 542 times, and
- received 484 mentions.
Follow the Court on Twitter https://twitter.com/FamilyCourtAU
The Family Court’s YouTube channel has been operating since October 2013. There are 11 videos available to help litigants prepare for and understand court processes.
During 2016–17 there were 64,776 minutes watched and 16,812 views.
The top three videos are: How to apply for divorce: serving divorce papers; Mediation – what to expect; and the Court Tour.
Visit the Family Court’s YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/familycourtAU
Family Violence Best Practice Principles
The 4th edition of the Family Violence Best Practice Principles was released in December 2016.
The latest amendments highlight the fact that victims of family violence are often traumatised and vulnerable witnesses – and explain the various means of protection available for use by judges hearing those cases. The updates reflect the extensive powers of the judiciary in regard to the cross-examination of vulnerable witnesses by alleged perpetrators of family violence.
These updates follow a number of reports and events related to family violence, including: the Family Law Council’s final report on Families with Complex Needs and the Intersection of the Family Law and Child Protection Systems; Women’s Legal Services Australia’s Safety First in Family Law; COAG’s Third National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children and the COAG National Summit on Reducing Violence against Women and their Children, held in Brisbane in October 2016.
The courts are committed to improving the way they deal with issues relating to family violence. The enhanced focus on cross-examination of vulnerable witnesses is an important improvement in this area.
Forging international peer-to-peer relations between the Family Court of Australia and the Supreme Court of Indonesia and the Family Courts for Muslim citizens
The Family Court of Australia was the first foreign court to engage with the Family Courts for Muslim citizens in Indonesia, known as the Religious Courts. The Honourable Diana Bryant AO, Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia agreed in 2004 to commence a dialogue between judges and administrators of her court and those of the Religious Courts of Indonesia. In 2005, a Vice Chief Judge of one of the High Religious Courts, Bapak Suryadi, and the head of the agency administering the Religious Courts, Bapak Wahyu Widiana, led a group of 20 judges, registrars and court administration experts on a two week visit to the Family Court of Australia supported by the Indonesia Australia Legal Development Facility1.
From this initial exchange, many of the key themes of engagement over the next decade emerged:
- Transparency of information through the Religious Courts website.
- Awareness that many clients of the Religious Courts face barriers in bringing their family law cases to court, particularly women, the poor and people living in remote areas.
- Importance of measuring client’s satisfaction with the quality of service offered by the Religious Courts.
The dialogue and collaboration between the Family Court of Australia and the Religious Courts and Supreme Court of Indonesia continues to this day. It is led by the Chief Justices of the Supreme Court of Indonesia and Family Court of Australia, meeting each year to discuss the particular areas of judicial collaboration that are of most relevance to their courts. The engagement then takes place between judges, registrars, court staff and CSO officials working to support access to the courts in family law matters.
Many of the profound changes that have occurred for women, the poor and people living in remote areas seeking to access the Religious Courts developed through the dialogue and the exchange of ideas with the Family Court of Australia and Indonesian CSO partners.
Future collaboration: 2017–2020
The 12 years of collaboration from 2004–2016 has seen far-reaching improvements in access to the Family Courts in Indonesia for women, the poor and people living in remote areas. It has also witnessed striking improvements in the level of transparency of family law cases brought before the courts.
The Family Court of Australia and the Supreme Court of Indonesia have worked towards agreement of a new MOU for the period 2017–2020, in the following three areas:
- improving the quality of services and judicial decisions in cases affecting women and children
- improving the quality of services and outcomes in cases involving women and children, and
- improving the transparency and capacity of the Supreme Court to present trend data on access to justice and the quality of services and outcomes in Indonesia for women, children and people living with a disability.
The Family Court of Australia and Supreme Court of Indonesia will continue to collaborate with CSOs in Indonesia to ensure that these efforts continue to yield tangible results for women and children in Indonesia.
In focus: Victoria University Internship Program
The Victoria University Internship Program is a joint initiative between the Family Court and Victoria University.
It is a five-day program run over a semester that provides interns with an opportunity to witness the inner workings of a federal court. This includes observing different stages of court proceedings, and meeting with judges, associates, registrars, family consultants and court staff to hear about career paths and opportunities. A lunch with the profession is also included.
The Court hosted the third program (coordinated from Justice Bennett’s chambers) from 22 March 2017 until 17 May 2017 with seven students attending.
The students met with Justices Macmillan, Johns and Thornton and Judges Reithmuller, Stewart and Maguire from the Federal Circuit Court. They also spoke with Justices Aldridge and Austin following a sitting of the Full Court.