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
- provide national coverage as the appellate court in family law matters.
An internationally respected, specialist family court.
To assist Australian families in the determination of the most complex family law disputes domestically and internationally, consistent with the rule of law and procedural fairness.
- 100% clearance rate
- 20,436 total applications filed
- 93% of cases (applications) finalised within 12 months
- 370 appeals finalised
- 50% of applications related to FINANCIAL only
- 13,962 consent orders finalised
- 4282 Twitter followers
- 1170 first instance judgments published to AustLII
- 75% of judgments delivered within three months
Chief Justice’s year in review
I write this review, with five months remaining until my retirement in December 2018.
In doing so, I note the announcement made by the Attorney-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, the Honourable Christian Porter MP, of the Government’s intention to reform the structure of the federal courts (namely, the Federal Court of Australia (FCA), the Family Court of Australia (FCoA) and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia (FCC)).
The Government’s intention is to bring the FCoA and FCC closer together under the umbrella of a new court, named the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia, and to structure the two courts into two divisions: Division one being the current FCoA, and Division two being the current FCC. The FCA will remain unchanged except for the creation of a Family Law Appeal Division.
The three Heads of Jurisdiction were consulted prior to the announcement and there will be further consultation in relation to any proposed legislation. The proposed restructure of the courts is not related to the review of family law currently being conducted by the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC).
Appointments, retirements and honours
Justice William Alstergren was appointed a judge of the FCoA on 13 October 2017, and on 15 December 2017, he was appointed Deputy Chief Justice of the FCoA.
Justice Michael Baumann AM was appointed to the Brisbane registry of the Court in January 2018. His Honour was formerly a judge of the FCC.
Chief Justice Diana Bryant AO retired on 12 October 2017.
Justice Michelle May AM retired as a judge of the Court on 31 July 2017. Justice May led the Appeal Division of the Court and I thank her for her service.
Justice Victoria Bennett AO was appointed an Officer in the General Division of the Order of Australia for ‘distinguished service to the judiciary and to the law, to the improvement of the family law system and child protection, to legal education, and to improving access to justice for indigenous families.’
Since 1 July 2016, the FCA has managed the Court appropriation and corporate services administration of all three federal courts, including the staff of the courts, under the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013.
Ms Patricia Christie concluded her term as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Principal Registrar of the FCoA on 31 December 2017. I acknowledge her valuable contribution to the Court.
Mr Warwick Soden was appointed as acting CEO and Principal Registrar of the FCoA.
The Digital Court File (DCF) is still being designed and is expected to be in place by the end of 2018. The DCF aims to provide better case management for the courts, easier filing access for litigants, and digital storage facilities, and will move us closer to having ‘paperless’ chambers. The project is being managed by Ms Louise Anderson, the National Director of Court and Tribunal Services, who was appointed in April 2018.
The Court appointed two more family consultants, following a funds allotment in the 2017–18 Budget. Three FCoA registrars were also appointed.
Following the retirement of Justice May, Justice Stephen Thackray assumed the administration of the Appeal Division of the Court until March 2018, when Deputy Chief Justice Alstergren assumed the responsibility.
Justice Thackray has given notice that he will relinquish his assignment to the Appeal Division in September 2018. His Honour remains a member of the General Division of the Court and Chief Judge of the Family Court of Western Australia. I thank Justice Thackray for his significant contribution to the Appeal Division.
Justice Garry Watts and Justice Stewart Austin were assigned to the Appeal Division in June 2018.
Australian Law Reform Commission review of the family law system
The ALRC announced terms of reference in September 2017, which largely relate to the operation of the Family Law Act 1975 (not the structure of the courts) and its effects on Australian families. The review is to be completed by March 2019. The full terms of reference can be found on the ALRC’s website. Professor Helen Rhoades was appointed as the review’s lead Commissioner and is assisted by former Deputy Chief Justice of the FCoA, John Faulks, and Mr Geoffrey Sinclair. Justice Watts is a member of the review’s Advisory Committee.
Justice Steven Strickland is Chair of the Court’s ALRC Committee, which prepared the Court’s response to the ALRC’s Issues Paper in June 2018 and has an important liaison role.
Family Court of Australia Reconciliation Action Plan 2018–2020
After several years of consultation and planning, the FCoA, in collaboration with Reconciliation Australia, has completed its Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). I acknowledge the hard work of the Court’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Outreach Committee, chaired by Justice Robert Benjamin.
Justice Victoria Bennett, Justice Margaret Cleary, Justice Colin Forrest, Justice Peter Tree and Justice Garry Foster all worked very hard to achieve the RAP. The RAP is published on both the Court’s and Reconciliation Australia’s websites and was officially launched on 9 July 2018 at a ceremony in Melbourne.
Family violence issues
The judges of the Court will undergo family violence training, as part of the National Judicial College of Australia’s government-supported training for judges, in November 2018.
In June 2018, the Attorney-General and the Minister for Women, the Honourable Kelly O’Dwyer MP, jointly introduced the Family Law Amendment (Family Violence and Cross-examination of Parties) Bill 2018 into the House of Representatives. The Bill proposes that victims of serious family violence who are self-represented will be protected from having to directly cross-examine or be cross-examined by perpetrators of violence during family law proceedings. The Court (via Justice Strickland and Deputy Principal Registrar Virginia Wilson), along with representatives from the FCC, the Family Court of Western Australia, and various Legal Aid Commissions were involved in consultations on the Bill.
In 2017–18, there were a total of 2427 first instance final orders matters filed and 390 appeals filed. There were 2534 first instance matters finalised by judges, and 320 Full Court appeal and 50 single-judge appeal judgments published. There are 3118 first instance final orders matters and 220 appeals pending. Despite this, the Court is operating at a 100 per cent clearance rate, which is pleasing. The Court’s judgments are published by the FCoA’s Judgments Publications Office, which also anonymises the matters, and the entire corpus of FCoA published judgments are available online.
There are a great many challenges ahead, both with proposed structural reform and recommendations from the ALRC family law review. A new Chief Justice will navigate the Court through the changes and I wish him or her every success.
I have had the great privilege of serving as Chief Justice of this Court, albeit for a limited period. It is a court that has forged a significant international reputation and developed many innovative ways of assisting families in dispute. It has been characterised by judges and staff who are truly caring about the welfare of the families who come before it. The judges are highly specialised in the dynamics of family law, and deal with many of the most problematic and challenging cases. It has been an honour to lead the Court at a time of change.
Over the years I have been a judge, I have seen a very significant rise in family violence and dysfunction. The number of self-represented litigants has grown sharply, as has the presence of mental illness and substance addiction. All of these factors put children at risk.
The family law system and the courts must continually evolve in order to meet the challenges of social change. However, courts cannot deal with these issues alone; rather, the whole community must be committed to working together to tackle the causes of violence and protect our children.
It is a sad fact that the spectre of violence and harm is present in the courts every day and adds a high level of stress to the work of the judges, who must be commended for their efforts to protect those who are vulnerable.
In conclusion, I want to thank the judges, registrars, associates, family consultants and staff of the Court who have worked with me during my time as Chief Justice. You have my admiration and my thanks. You are all to be congratulated for doing excellent work in difficult circumstances.
It is also appropriate for me to thank the judges and staff of the FCC, of which I was Chief Judge for many years. The FCC is the work-horse of the federal court system, and deals with the vast majority of filings. I have always been in awe of the contribution of its judges and staff, and I am very proud to have been the Chief Judge.
The Honourable John Pascoe AC CVO