Family law reform appears doomed

Attorney-General Christian Porter.
Attorney-General Christian Porter

The Morrison government’s signature reforms to restructure the family law courts appear to be dead in the water.

Attorney-General Christian Porter yesterday failed to secure the support of crossbench senators to bring the government’s bill to a vote today, to scrap the Family Court and merge it with the lower-level Federal Circuit Court.

The reforms are aimed at improving the efficiency of the family law system, which is facing a backlog of about 20,000 cases, but have faced fierce opposition from the legal profession.

Today is the final opportunity to secure the passage of the bill as it is the last sitting day of the Senate before the federal election.

Mr Porter told The Australian his reforms were “modern, sensible and cautious” and were a “once-in-a-generation” opportunity to overhaul the trouble-plagued family law system.

He said he had secured the necessary support of eight crossbench senators for the bill. However, Derryn Hinch has told the government he will not support a motion to gag debate in the Senate to enable a vote to occur today.

Mr Porter said this meant he was “struggling timing-wise” to secure the passage of the reforms.

Senator Hinch did not respond last night to a request for comment.

However, earlier in the day, he told The Australian he was “in talks” with Mr Porter.

He said he had still not seen the Australian Law Reform Commission’s report into the family law system, and wanted the Senate to have a chance to debate it.

The ALRC report was due to be handed to the government last weekend.

Mr Porter last night wrote to opposition legal affairs spokesman Mark Dreyfus in a last-ditch effort to gain Labor’s support for the bill to be dealt with before the rise of the senate this evening.

The letter said there was “almost universal acceptance” that splitting the family law system between two separate courts was “a structurally failed system”.

“This week there exists a singular opportunity to help Australian families resolve their disputes faster by ending … the failed experiment of a split family law system,” he wrote.

The budget yesterday provided an extra $16 million over four years for four additional judges and a registrar to help clear the family law backlog — but made this contingent on the passage of the reforms to the court system.

Mr Dreyfus had not received the letter last night, but said the reforms had “been a debacle from start to finish”.

“These bills were developed with no consultation with family court lawyers, judges, families or advocacy groups, and they are not supported by any major stakeholder,” he said.

He said Labor’s position was that major change to the system should not be done in this way, and not “in the government’s dying days before an election”. “If elected, reform of the family law system will be a high priority for a Labor government,” he said.

“Any reforms will be informed by the ALRC review, which the government should release, and by consultation with the sector.”

In his letter, Mr Porter outlined major amendments he had made to the bill following a Senate inquiry.

This included scrapping a controversial proposal to send family law appeals to the Federal Court and prescribing a minimum number of superior-level judges for Division 1 of the new court.

He said the extra $16m would help hundreds of families because each Family Court judge finalised 114 applications a year and each Federal Circuit Court judge finalised 338 applications a year.

Key crossbench senator Rex Patrick had agreed to support the bill following these amendments.

Independent senator Tim Storer said he would not support the bill because he was not yet convinced it was the most effective way to improve the system.