Attorney-General Christian Porter has accused Labor of dragging out an inquiry into the government’s family courts restructure for political purposes, which are “not at all in the best interest of Australian families”.
In a letter to opposition legal affairs spokesman Mark Dreyfus, Mr Porter said a 236-day inquiry into the government’s legislation to merge the Family Court and lower-level Federal Circuit Court was “completely extraordinary and excessive”.
Of the 251 clauses in the main bill, only 60 were new or substantively changed, and previous inquiries had been conducted in shorter time frames, including inquiries into key counter-terrorism and social security legislation, he said.
Labor and crossbench senators have referred the bill to the Senate’s legal and constitutional affairs committee with an April 15 deadline for reporting.
However, Mr Porter wants the new, merged Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia to be operational by January 1.
The Coalition used its numbers on the committee to bring forward the reporting date to November 26, which it said would still allow enough time for hearings in Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Townsville.
However, Labor obtained advice from the Deputy Clerk of the Senate that even if the committee concluded its report by that date, the bill would not be available for debate until the Senate’s April 15 deadline for reporting.
Mr Dreyfus has argued the later reporting date would allow the committee time to consider a report by the Australian Law Reform Commission into the family law system, which is due March 31, and stakeholders enough time to respond to the significant changes.
But in his letter, Mr Porter said the structure of the family courts was specifically excluded from the ALRC inquiry, and any recommendations it made in relation to court processes could be more easily implemented in the new, simplified court structure.
He said two key stakeholders, the Law Council of Australia and Australian Bar Association, had been provided with early drafts of the legislation in mid-July to allow them time to consider it — although in the past the Law Council had managed to respond to proposed new foreign fighters laws within nine days.
Mr Porter said the April 15 timing appeared “somewhat politically motivated”, because it would mean the government would be unable to ensure passage of the bill before the election.
He said multiple reviews over the past decade, including those commissioned by Labor, had recommended structural reform of the federal family law courts, and the government’s proposed reforms would improve efficiency, reduce backlogs and drive faster and cheaper resolution of disputes for Australian families.
“It would appear that the delays now being sought in respect of the committee process are designed to delay the government’s proposed reforms beyond the intended commencement date of 1 January, 2019, for purposes which are not at all in the best interest of Australian families,” he wrote.
“Families presently in the system are subject to the confusion and delays inherent in the two-court system which is now roundly acknowledged as an experiment that has failed and which is in urgent need of reform.”