About the Court

The Family Court of Australia (FCoA) 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.

Objective

The Court’s objective is to determine the most complex family law disputes including in specialised areas of family law through effective judicial and non-judicial processes, while respecting the needs of separating families.

Purpose

As outlined in the Corporate Plan, the purpose of the Court, as Australia’s superior court in family law, is to help Australians resolve their most complex family disputes by deciding matters according to the law, promptly, courteously and effectively.

Jurisdiction

The FCoA 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

Effective 1 July 2016, the FCoA and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia (FCC) were amalgamated with the Federal Court of Australia (FCA) into a single administrative body with a single appropriation and shared corporate services. The Courts Administration Legislation Amendment Act 2016 established the amalgamated body, known as the Federal Court of Australia. This approach preserves the courts’ functional and judicial independence while improving their financial sustainability.

Outcome 2

The outcome of the Court is to apply and uphold the rule of law for litigants in the FCoA 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.

Program 2.1

The FCoA has a single program under which all services are provided: Family Court of Australia.

Performance criteria

  • Clearance rate of 100 per cent
  • 75 per cent of judgments to be delivered within three months, and
  • 75 per cent of cases pending conclusion to be less than 12 months old.

Details of the Court’s performance in 2017–18 can be found in Part 3 of this report (Report on court performance) on page 20. The Court’s annual performance statement can be found in the Federal Court of Australia’s 2017–18 annual report.

Court service locations

The FCC provides the FCoA 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:

  • Adelaide
  • Brisbane
  • Canberra
  • Hobart
  • Melbourne
  • Newcastle
  • Parramatta
  • Sydney, and
  • Townsville.

Access and inclusion

The Court continues to develop and implement plans under its access and inclusion framework. The framework aims to ensure all parties, particularly parties who are vulnerable and disadvantaged, receive the assistance they need to access the Court.

The framework acknowledges that justice begins well before a party has their first court event, and that a party’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
  • Reconciliation Action Plan.

Rewards and recognition

Queen’s Birthday Honours List

Photo of Justice Victoria Bennett

Justice Victoria Bennett AO was appointed as 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.’

Justice Bennett has been involved in family law for more than 30 years, firstly as a barrister, and for the last 13 years as a judge. Her Honour has been influential in the development of measures in domestic and international family law and procedures for the protection of children in Australia and internationally.

Australia Day achievement medallions

The following FCoA staff were recognised in this year’s Australia Day awards for excellence.

Cassie Absolom (Hobart)

Cassie has been with the Court for just over 12 years and is a Judicial Associate. Cassie commenced as an administrative associate to Justice Benjamin in the Hobart registry on his appointment to the Family Court. She is meticulous in her work and committed to ensuring work is up to date and orders are dispatched accurately and quickly. Judgments are generally delivered promptly and much of this has to do with the organisation and energy that Cassie brings to her work and chambers.

Phillip Cameron (Sydney)

Phillip has been with the Court for almost 20 years and is a Coordinating Registrar. Phillip is highly regarded by the judges and his colleagues for his resourceful, no-nonsense style of dealing with a heavy workload. Since taking over the Appeal Registry, he has put in place many measures to ensure the efficient running of the high volume of appeals in Sydney. It has been in no small part due to Phillip and his team in the Appeal Registry that the number of pending appeals in the Eastern Region has been reduced by almost two-thirds.

Paula Spain (Melbourne)

Paula has been with the Court for almost 23 years and is a Senior Client Service Officer. Paula has worked in Client Services as a Client Service Officer and also as one of the dedicated Case Coordinators. Paula has a significant workload that she is required to manage calmly and efficiently. She does this with a quiet and considered demeanour, demonstrating a flexibility that is required to enable the flow of matters within the Court as priorities change.

Social media

Twitter

The FCoA’s Twitter account has been operating since October 2012. Twitter provides followers with timely, relevant and easy-to-access information about the Court and family law issues. Followers are predominately made up of legal professionals, law students, journalists and members of the general public.

During 2017–18 the Court:

  • gained 636 followers, bringing the total number of followers to 4282
  • sent 178 tweets, made up of 25 plain text tweets, 119 page links and 34 photo links – an average of over three tweets per week
  • was re-tweeted 426 times, and
  • received 752 mentions.

The Court’s Twitter address is www.twitter.com/FamilyCourtAU.

YouTube

The FCoA’s YouTube channel has been operating since October 2013. There are 11 videos available to help litigants prepare for and understand court processes.

During 2017–18, some 1570 hours were watched and there were 27,278 views.

The top three videos were Mediation – what to expect; How to apply for divorce: serving divorce papers; and the Court Tour.

The Court’s YouTube channel is at www.youtube.com/user/familycourtAU.

Initiatives

Family Law Amendment (2018 Measures No. 1) Rules 2018

The Family Law Amendment (2018 Measures No. 1) Rules 2018 introduced several significant procedural changes that came into effect on 1 March 2018.

  • It is no longer necessary to file a Superannuation Information Form with an Application for Consent Orders, provided an alternative document is filed that allows the Court to determine the value of the superannuation interest.
  • The Annexure for Proposed Consent Parenting Orders was incorporated as part of the Application for Consent Orders at Q25. When an Application for Consent Orders is filed seeking parenting orders, the application must certify whether the child (or children) concerned has been abused or is at risk of being abused and whether there has been, or there is a risk of, family violence by one of the parties.
  • A new form – Notice of Child Abuse, Family Violence or Risk of Family Violence (Application for Consent Orders) must be filed if a party ticks the box at the new Q25 in the Application for Consent Orders to say they do consider that a child concerned in the proposed orders has been or is at risk of being subjected to or exposed to abuse, neglect or family violence.
  • The previous form Notice of Child Abuse, Family Violence or Risk of Family Violence was renamed Notice of Child Abuse, Family Violence or Risk of Family Violence (Current Case) and must only be used in ongoing proceedings for parenting orders other than consent orders.
  • A new form – Submitting Notice – is to be used when a party has been served with an Initiating Application (Family Law) seeking final orders, a Response to an Initiating Application (Family Law), a Reply to a Response to an Initiating Application (Family Law), or a Notice of Appeal, and they do not want to contest the making of the orders sought.
  • A new form – Notice of Contention – is to be used if a respondent does not seek to file a cross-appeal, but seeks to have the orders made affirmed by the appeal court on grounds other than were relied on by the first instance court because they believe that the appeal has merit but there is another reason why the decision of the trial judge should be upheld.
  • Annexures or exhibits are to be identified in an affidavit, but not filed with the affidavit, in the FCoA only. There may be exceptions where court orders or the rules provide otherwise (e.g. r 15.62 in relation to expert reports). The annexures or exhibits should be tendered at the court event when the relevant affidavit is relied upon or as required. The annexures or exhibits referred to in the affidavit must be served with the affidavit on the other party/ies after filing.

Form changes to support same-sex marriage

The Marriage Amendment (Definition and Religious Freedoms) Act 2017 commenced on 9 December 2017. This Act amended the Marriage Act 1961 to redefine marriage as ‘the union of two people to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life’. Since that date, same-sex married couples (including those who married overseas prior to the commencement of the reforms) are treated the same as other married couples, and are able to divorce under Australian law if they meet the other requirements for divorce under the Family Law Act 1975.

These amendments, and the legislative changes that flowed from the amendments, necessitated updating of the court’s electronic filing system. Electronic filing of applications for divorce by same-sex couples was not able to be immediately accommodated, and as an interim measure, such applications were able to be filed in a paper format.

Electronic signing and sealing of orders for first instance matters

As part of the FCoA’s and FCC’s commitment to the Government’s digital continuity policy, the courts have changed the way court orders are accessed. The move to completely digital court orders was rolled out in two stages and is now complete:

  1. From 1 July 2017, the courts no longer posted hard copies of sealed orders by mail to legal representatives. All court orders (except consent and appeal) are now signed and sealed electronically and available to download from the Commonwealth Courts Portal (the Portal) – www.comcourts.gov.au.
  2. From 1 January 2018 this was extended to all self-represented and other parties, meaning that all court orders can now only be downloaded from the Portal.

These changes provide for faster and more secure delivery of court orders. Other benefits include:

  • instant access to complete court files and court orders online anytime via www.comcourts.gov.au
  • safe and secure delivery of orders, and
  • no cost to get copies of sealed orders. They will always be available to download from the Portal for free.

Registrar intervention project

The Attorney-General’s Department provided funding to the Family Court to undertake an initiative that provides an opportunity for parties to resolve their legal proceedings or narrow the issues while awaiting a final hearing. The project aimed to evaluate whether additional registrar resources will improve the ability of the Court to manage proceedings involving family violence; alleviate workload pressures of judges; or otherwise improve the capacity of the Court to perform its key functions.

The initiative was conducted in the Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney registries and targeted cases that have been waiting at least six months for a final hearing, including cases that have been transferred from the FCC. The registrars identified appropriate cases for a case conference to attempt to resolve the matter or narrow the issues between the parties.

Matters involving parenting issues were allocated to a conference with a Registrar and a Family Dispute Resolution Practitioner. Matters involving financial issues were listed before a Registrar only. Conferences were listed for up to a full day.

There was no loss of priority in the list of matters awaiting allocation to a judge for a final hearing for those cases that were not resolved.

As a result of the intervention project an estimated 239 trial days have been saved. Of the matters included in the project, 48 per cent were resolved and a further 33 per cent were partially resolved or otherwise progressed.

A final evaluation will be provided to the Department.