102% Clearance rate
19,594 Applications filed
379 Appeals finalised
52% of applications related to financial only
93% of cases (applications) finalised within 12 months
79% of judgments delivered within 3 months
4,634 twitter followers
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.
The year in review
On 10 December 2018, I was appointed as Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia (Family Court), which created my dual role as the head of two Commonwealth jurisdictions, the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia (Federal Circuit Court).
My appointment as Chief Justice followed the retirement of the former Chief Justice, the Honourable John Pascoe AC CVO who had been head of the Family Court for a period of just over 12 months. His Honour’s most significant contribution was made as Chief Judge of the Federal Circuit Court, a position he held for 14 years. I wish to acknowledge the generous contribution that his Honour made to both courts and for the steady guidance and unwavering support provided to the judiciary during his tenure.
It must be acknowledged that the Court experienced a challenging year, due in part, to the uncertainty created by the Government’s proposal to reform the structure of the federal courts by merging the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court. This issue was unresolved prior to the end of the financial year, however following the federal election in May, the Attorney-General, the Honourable Christian Porter MP, has publicised his intention to continue with the Government’s plans to reform the family law courts as a top priority.
Irrespective of this, the Court is committed to making the necessary changes to improve the family law system so that the families who need assistance to resolve their disputes can experience a process that is easy to navigate and a system that will lead to a fair and timely resolution of their dispute. To achieve this objective, the key focus in the past year has been on streamlining case management practices across both courts, namely through the Rules Harmonisation project, the introduction of improved reporting systems, and family violence-related initiatives.
I am incredibly proud of the judges of this court who aptly handle cases that involve a myriad of complex legal and social issues on a daily basis. The parenting cases that come before the Family Court frequently involve difficult questions of law, disputed issues of risk, and specialised issues such as international relocation and application under the Hague Convention. In addition, matters often involve allegations of sexual abuse or physical abuse of a child, and issues relating to family violence, substance abuse and mental health.
Another significant area of the Court’s work relates to financial cases that may involve complex interests in trusts or corporate structures, multiple expert witnesses or business valuations, or jurisdictional issues (including accrued jurisdiction).
Judicial appointments, elevations and retirements
The timely appointment of judges following judicial retirements is critical to the Court’s ability to manage its workload and minimise delays in having matters heard. In this regard, an increase in judicial appointments over the last year has been of great assistance to both the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court. In the past 12 months, there have been seven judicial appointments to the Family Court, bringing the total number of judges in the Court to 34.
The year saw the well-deserved elevations of six experienced Federal Circuit Court judges to the Family Court: the Honourable Justice Louise Henderson, the Honourable Justice Jillian Williams, the Honourable Justice Joshua Wilson, the Honourable Justice Robert Harper, the Honourable Justice Christine Mead and the Honourable Justice Norah Hartnett. I congratulate each of these judges on their welcomed elevation to the superior court. I also congratulate the Honourable Justice Gail Sutherland on her Honour’s appointment as Chief Judge of the Family Court of Western Australia. The Court also welcomed the Honourable Justice Timothy McEvoy in Melbourne and the Honourable Justice Ciara Tyson received a dual commission with the Family Court of Western Australia.
I wish to make particular mention of the elevation of the Honourable Justice Robert McClelland to the role of Deputy Chief Justice, which commenced on 10 December 2018. His Honour has been of considerable assistance to me in this role and I wish to thank him for his ongoing support.
The extent of change to the bench in the past year has been significant, with six judicial officers retiring: the Honourable Chief Justice John Pascoe AC CVO, the Honourable Justice Christine Thornton, the Honourable Justice Jennifer Coate AO, the Honourable Justice Paul Cronin, the Honourable Justice Peter Murphy and the Honourable Justice Mark Le Poer Trench. I thank our retiring judges for their immense dedication to the Court over the years and sincerely wish them all the very best in their retirement.
The Honourable Justice Peter Tree was assigned to the Appeal Division on 22 March 2019 and has continued to hear trials at first instance.
During the year, the Court implemented a number of case management initiatives aimed at reducing the backlog of matters that had steadily grown over the past several years. To assist in reducing this backlog, particularly in the Melbourne and Sydney registries, in late 2018 I asked judges of the Appeal Division to consider also sitting on first instance cases as the Court had, at that time, a shortage of trial judges. While some Appeal Division judges heard matters at first instance, it has not historically been widespread practice. I am very pleased that the Appeal Division has shown leadership in adopting this new practice and undertaking trial work when they can.
As the Court gratefully welcomed new trial judges in early 2019, the need for this measure was reduced. However, there remains an unacceptable delay in matters awaiting final hearing. That delay will be reduced with Appeal Division judges continuing to undertake trials and conduct duty lists in Brisbane, Sydney, Newcastle and Townsville and Cairns.
I thank the Honourable Justice Steven Strickland for his substantial support during the year, especially in managing appeals in Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne.
I would also like to thank the Appeal registrars, and in particular Registrar Teresa Kane as National Appeal Registrar, for their assistance in ensuring the smooth running of the Appeal registry. Registrar Phillip Cameron has been appointed as National Appeal Registrar and I am very grateful to him for undertaking this role.
For a number of years, the Court had been the subject of criticism regarding the length of time in having matters dealt with, which in some cases, extended up to two to three years. The judges of the Court are incredibly hardworking and it was unfortunate that a number of factors outside the control of the Court, such as delays in replacing retired judges, contributed to the problem. The Court acknowledges that having to wait years to have a family law dispute brought to resolution is unacceptable and now, with the timely appointment of new judges this financial year, the Court is in a much better position to reduce those delays.
It is therefore pleasing to report that, for the first time in many years, the Court has achieved a clearance rate of 102 per cent for all application types and 107.6 per cent for final order applications. The overall clearance rate in 2017–18 was 100 per cent.
These results are outstanding and effectively mean that the Court is completing more cases in a year than the number of filings received. This enables the Court to reduce the backlog of pending cases.
The judges must be commended for their extraordinary work ethic during the year and their dedication to dealing with their workload with efficiency.
The current family law system has been criticised as being confusing, inefficient and causing unacceptable delays. This is partly because it involves two different sets of rules, forms and case management processes. Obviously, this is particularly difficult for unrepresented litigants. In an effort to rectify this problem, a Joint Rules Harmonisation Working Group of judges of both courts was established in February 2019 and government funding has been provided for this project. This endeavour has been a key priority for me since I was appointed in October 2017.
Former Federal Court judge, the Honourable Dr Chris Jessup QC, accepted an invitation to Chair the Working Group and oversee the harmonisation project, and assist in developing a consistent approach to case management. The appointment of an independent Chair to this position ensures objectivity, transparency and confidence in the process.
The working group has made fantastic progress so far on what is an inevitably detailed and time consuming process, and there is a great deal of good will between the two courts to finally get this project over the line.
I have received several letters from various law societies and peak bodies inquiring as to whether they will be consulted during the harmonisation process. I would like to reassure the profession that ample consultation will take place throughout 2019–20 with the profession and all relevant stakeholders once the broader cohort of judges has been consulted and sufficient progress has been made. As a core user group of the Court rules, the profession’s contributions to this project will be gladly received.
Case management initiatives
A series of case management initiatives were conducted during 2018–19 in the Melbourne and Sydney registries of the Family Court by Deputy Chief Justice McClelland, the Honourable Justice Benjamin AM and myself. Between 18–21 March 2019, 196 property cases, 87 matters in Melbourne and 109 matters in Sydney, were called over and referred to private arbitration, mediation or other forms of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). Parties were also able to seek orders from the Court to assist in progressing matters towards resolution such as for the appointment of single experts, disclosure or updated valuations. Compliance hearings for these matters were listed between May and August 2019. In the Melbourne registry, those matters that were not suitable for referral to ADR were able to be listed for trial in the next three months due to the recent appointment of new judges.
There has been outstanding support from the profession for these initiatives and I personally thank them for that support. Of particular note has been the increased interest in the use of private arbitration. A list of arbitrators and mediators provided by the Australian Institute of Family Law Arbitrators and Mediators was made available during the call overs and was readily used by the profession.
Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) review of the family law system
In March 2019, the ALRC released its Final Report ‘Family Law for the Future – An Inquiry into the Family Law System’. A response from Government regarding the Report had not been released at the end of this financial year. Irrespective of this, it is clear that the report highlights the many complex challenges facing the family law system. The Court is considering the ALRC’s recommendations and will continue working with state and federal governments to ensure the best possible outcomes for children and families, particularly as we see more families having to navigate proceedings between the Commonwealth and state/territory court systems.
Family violence initiatives
In November 2018, the judges of the Court underwent extensive training in the complex issues of family violence as part of the National Judicial College of Australia’s government-supported training for judges.
The Court recognises that there is a close connection between family breakdown and violence, and the detrimental impact that family violence has on adults and children. In April 2019, the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court released an updated Family Violence Plan. The plan was originally developed in 2014 and demonstrates the courts’ ongoing commitment to addressing issues of family violence by providing a comprehensive set of actions that will support people who are experiencing, or are at risk of, family violence.
The Court would like to acknowledge the important work undertaken by the Family Violence Committee in bringing this plan to fruition and to those who contributed to its development. Protecting family members, and particularly children, from the effects of family violence is fundamental to decisions made in the best interests of the children. Ensuring the safety of people involved in family law litigation is a significant priority for the Court.
Family violence training module for all staff
Families engaging with the family law system often experience significantly higher rates of family violence than the general community, which makes this issue particularly relevant to all staff working in the family courts, including registrars, associates, registry officers and security staff. As part of the courts’ Family Violence Plan, all staff were required during the year, to complete mandatory training via the courts’ eLearning system. Staff were encouraged to undertake the course, called Let’s Talk: Family Violence, over a few sessions, taking time to consider the content and how it influences the way they approach their work and the courts’ clients.
Risk Management screening tool in development
During 2018–19, the Court considered a new approach to risk assessment and triage that would assist in the early identification of high-risk cases and enable better support for families in need of assistance. The overarching goal is to improve the safety outcomes for families involved in family violence-related cases.
The development of a risk screening tool to quickly identify issues of family violence and people who are at significant risk of harm, is a priority for the Court. The introduction of a screening tool would also enable earlier information sharing with police and government agencies in high-risk cases. The Court is also considering how early case assessment and screening processes could be used to identify families with high needs and refer them to external support services. The project is at an early stage of development, however to fully complete and implement a new risk screening tool, the Court is dependent on securing government funding.
It is well accepted that the cases coming before the family law courts are growing in the level of complexity, and the number of filings of notices of risk has increased. What the statistics don’t reveal is that these cases take up a lot more court time and are less likely to settle. Many of these parties are unrepresented and often find it difficult to present their case. All parts of the Court including judges, registrars and family consultants need to give additional time and intensive resources to these cases.
These cases are also most likely to require information from the state courts and agencies. Having all of the relevant information is the key to good decision making in all cases, but especially for families affected by family violence. The courts are continuing to work with state and territory governments to improve information sharing particularly between courts, but also child welfare agencies and police. This has been working well in Victoria and it is hoped it can be extended to other states. The courts are working with the Attorney-General’s Department and the state and territory agencies on this initiative.
Digital Court File
The Digital Court File (DCF) project gathered significant momentum this year in the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court. Judges are being educated in the new online platform with one-on-one training sessions and have also been assisted by the provision of extensive IT support.
The Court is continuing to investigate the extent to which paper files could be phased out completely.
I congratulate the Directors of Court Services and managers who have performed a host of training sessions across the country to increase staff awareness and exposure to the new systems. My thanks go to Craig Reilly, Tracey Drake and the IT team for their diligence during the past 12 months advancing this project nationally.
Ongoing support for judicial welfare and staff resilience training
During the year, the Court introduced substantial measures to assist and support judicial officers in performing their duties. This includes a more rigorous induction process for new judges, access to a formal and ongoing mentoring program, closer management and monitoring of judgments. This has been accompanied with the introduction of an extensive health and wellbeing program for the judges of the Court.
Staff resilience training was also carried out this year by the Executive Director, People, Culture and Communication, Darrin Moy. Over 600 staff took the opportunity to participate and the results reported were that it was a very rewarding experience for over 90 per cent of participants.
The Family Court is committed to assisting families to resolve their disputes in the most appropriate way for each particular case. For some families, this may be through a negotiated settlement or may only require the assistance of a registrar. For other families with particular risk factors, judicial determination may be the only appropriate method of resolution. Our aim is to provide a just resolution in a timely way, and to protect vulnerable families and children as best we can so that they can move forward with their lives.
I wish to extend my gratitude to the judges, registrars and staff of the Court for their tireless commitment to helping families resolve their family law disputes with fairness and professionalism.
I must also acknowledge the outstanding contribution of Warwick Soden OAM who, after 24 years of service to the Federal Court of Australia as the CEO and Principal Registrar, has announced his intention to leave office in October 2019 and formally retire in early 2020. Mr Soden also undertook the role of acting CEO of the Family Court in 2018.
Ms Louise Anderson assumed the role of acting CEO of the Family Court from Mr Soden before accepting the position of CEO, Court Services Victoria. Following Ms Anderson’s departure, Ms Virginia Wilson graciously assumed the acting CEO role. I thank both Ms Anderson and Ms Wilson for their professional support. The Court commenced a recruitment process to secure a permanent CEO and a decision around this position is expected to be announced in early 2019–20.
Finally, I thank the senior executive team and registry support staff who have provided excellent administrative assistance throughout the year. With significant structural changes made to the administrative functions of the courts during the year, it has been an incredibly challenging period and I acknowledge their efforts and dedication.
[Signed in hard copy]
The Hon. Will Alstergren