One Australian couple spent at least $4.5 million fighting over a $12 million property pool in a two-year Family Court battle, The Sunday-Mail can reveal.
The Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) has warned that legal costs “routinely exceed $300,000 for each party and sometimes exceed $1 million” — particularly in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne.
Now the Morrison Government will grant judges stronger powers to “fine’’ lawyers who deliberately drag out proceedings, by forcing them to personally pay their client’s legal bills — or the rival side’s costs — as punishment.
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Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter yesterday vowed to merge the Family Court with the Federal Circuit Court, and crack down on legal costs, once federal parliament resumes this week.
He said families going through the Family Court were experiencing “one of the most traumatic periods of their lives’’.
“It is incumbent on all involved within the court system to ensure that matters can be dealt with effectively, efficiently and as cheaply as possible,’’ he told The Sunday-Mail.
“The reforms would allow a judge to make an order that a lawyer bear costs personally for failure to assist a client comply with the duty to facilitate the just resolution of disputes as quickly, inexpensively and efficiently as possible.
“Doing so will assist Australian families spend less time in costly and protracted legal disputes.’’
Mr Porter tried to merge courts but failed to push his reforms through a hostile Senate before the May election.
He will now need the support of four crossbenchers in the new Senate, but is likely to win votes from Queensland’s two One Nation senators Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts, who are pushing for family law reform.
The ALRC also wants the government to abolish the existing law that makes each party pay their own costs in family law cases, to reduce “ambit claims that are sometimes made without fear of the consequences’’.
ALRC president Sarah Derrington, who chaired the government’s 18-month review of family law, said some couples spent the entire asset pool on legal bills.
She said judges must be prepared to “wield the big stick’’ to prevent lawyers driving up costs.
“If a lawyer is seeking an adjournment on behalf of a client, both the client and the lawyer are expected to consider what effect that will have on any children,’’ Justice Derrington told The Sunday-Mail.
“It depends on the judges then being prepared to wield the big stick they’ve been given.’’
Justice Derrington has warned that divorce battles are creating a generation of damaged children, and called for state and territory governments to take over family law so that the same judges and magistrates consider custody, domestic violence and child abuse issues.
“I offered her $60,000 free of lawyers but her lawyer said he can get her the house. The washup: I lost $120,000, she got $40,000, our lawyers got $65,000.”
“My son has been going to court for 10 years with no luck. It has cost him nearly $200,000 and he is now depressed.”
“I have been in contact with the Family Court for nearly four years at a cost of $180,000 in legal fees.”
“The court system has ruined my life. I had trouble seeing my daughter … three years into the system I lost my house, lost my business, my staff lost their jobs, I was forced into bankruptcy, I lost my super.”
“In the past two years I have spent $400,000 on defending my position in the Appeals Court. Fifteen minutes before the Full Court of Appeal I paid the ex-wife $108,000 extra – less than the $125,000 extra I offered in 2017 to settle before I spent the $400,000.”