‘Radical’ overhaul of commonwealth courts imminent

Attorney-General Senator George Brandis said he had an “entirely open mind” on changes to the courts’ structure.
Attorney-General Senator George Brandis said he had an “entirely open mind” on changes to the courts’ structure

“Radical” changes to the commonwealth law courts, in which the Family Court may be scrapped and folded into the Federal Court, could be implemented as soon as Christmas.

The Australian understands the heads of the three federal courts will meet in the next two weeks to discuss structural changes to improve their efficiency.

Attorney-General George Brandis told the courts on Friday the system was “capable of improvement” to ensure families could access “swifter, less expensive justice”. “The government is open to change, if need be, radical change,” he said at the swearing- in of Family Court Chief Justice John Pascoe and Federal Circuit Court Chief Judge Will Alstergren in Sydney.

“Now is the window of opportunity for those improvements to be made and implemented.”

Moves to restructure the courts comes amid a 40 per cent rise in migration cases in the past year, prompting warnings about a blowout in waiting times for litigants. Family law litigants are waiting as long as three years for their disputes to be resolved.

Registry and back-office staff staged a historic strike on Friday against job cuts. More than 120 jobs were cut in the past year in the merger of the three courts’ back offices, with the Federal Court warning in its annual report of staff cuts of up to 30 per cent over four years to achieve millions of dollars in savings.

Chief Justice Pascoe, who until Friday was head of the lower-level Federal Circuit Court, said there was now an 18-month delay in listing migration cases for final hearing and this could worsen as several judges were set to retire.

“This is of great concern,” he says in the Federal Circuit Court’s annual report. “It cannot be overstated that the court’s capacity to efficiently and effectively deal with its workload is directly impacted by the availability of adequate judicial resources.”

Recently retired Family Court chief justice Diana Bryant said her court was short three judges. In the court’s annual report, she said the delay in replacing judges affected the court’s capacity “to get through its workload” and led to “longer waiting times”.

In his speech on Friday, Senator Brandis said he had an “entirely open mind” on changes to the courts’ structure and would be guided by the heads of jurisdiction. Options to improve efficiency include folding the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court into the Federal Court or installing a chief judge to oversee all three courts.

It is understood Federal Court judges are not in favour of merging with the Family Court because they fear it would damage the prestige of their court.

At his swearing-in on Friday, Chief Judge Alstergren said he was “acutely aware” of the challenges facing the Federal Circuit Court, which handles 90 per cent of family law disputes. He promised initiatives in the coming weeks to tackle delays.

The Community and Public Sector Union’s Nadine Flood said staff at the federal courts went on strike for a half day on Friday for the first time in their history because they were “very worried” about job security. More than 10 per cent of jobs had been cut in the past year and the courts were proposing many more would go.

Staff were “particularly shocked” Federal Court management had refused the assistance of the Fair Work Commission to conciliate the dispute, which was “at odds” with the court’s expectation of litigants to engage in mediation and conciliation.

Law Council of Australia president Fiona McLeod SC urged the government to appoint new judges to the Family Court “immediately”.