Courts chief slams ‘mischief’ claims

THE Family Court Chief Justice has defended the ability of Federal Circuit Court judges to handle family law cases under a proposed merger of the two courts, after “mischievous’’ criticism.

He also said the level of family violence in Australian society was a “disgrace”.

Chief Justice Will Alstergren, who is also Chief Judge of the Federal Circuit Court, was speaking on the Gold Coast while launching a $13.5m pilot project to identify cases at high risk of family violence.

The Chief Justice said he was responding to “recent and careless comments’’ that inferred that FCC judges hearing family law cases was putting children or families at risk.

“I have had in recent days complaints from some quite distraught judges from across Australia alarmed at these mischiefs,’’ he said, at the National STOP Domestic Violence conference. “It is disappointing and disconcerting, because those comments could lead to diminished public confidence in the courts based on a false premise.’’

Former Family Court chief justices Elizabeth Evatt and Alistair Nicholson have spoken out against the federal government bill to abolish the Family Court and merge it with the FCC.

Ms Evatt said that the proposed merger would lead to undesirable outcomes for children and families.

Mr Nicholson said that family law cases were complex and nuanced and required the specialist knowledge of the type available in the Family Court.

Chief Justice Alstergren said that the Lighthouse Project, to run in Brisbane, Adelaide and Parramatta FCC registries from December 7, would operate a confidential screening process to identify high-risk cases.

It would enable the courts, at very early stages of parenting cases, to triage matters, then put them before one of 10 specialist judges selected for their experience in family violence, he said.