The nation’s system of three separate federal courts is not the most efficient way to administer justice and scrapping the Family Court could be one way to save money, says the court’s outgoing chief.
As she steps down, Family Court chief justice Diana Bryant has called for the Family Law Act to be rewritten because it is “too complex”, suggesting it is a good time to look at whether we have “the best system of federal courts for the future”.
“The act needs a rewrite to make it much more comprehensible,” she told The Australian in a wide-ranging interview to mark her statutory retirement at the age of 70.
“There are sections all over the place that should be together and they’re not.”
Chief Justice Bryant said she did not believe it was ideal for the commonwealth to retain three separate courts — the Family Court, Federal Court and lower-level Federal Circuit Court — given their stretched financial resources, and clearer rules were needed about the disputes each court handled.
“I don’t think the current system is the most efficient way of running things, frankly,” she said.
One option would be to scrap the Family Court and fold it into a new family law division of the Federal Court, which she said would probably be more efficient.
Another option would be to have one chief ultimately responsible for the courts’ operation.
Her departure comes as the Turnbull government embarks on a major family law system review, which will include an examination of whether the current adversarial system is the best way to protect children. The government is also due to trial the use of multi-disciplinary tribunals, which will include lawyers and other experts including psychologists, social workers and pediatricians, to resolve disputes.
Chief Justice Bryant said she believed our adversarial court system was “absolutely needed” in cases involving serious contested facts, including child sexual abuse and large, complex trusts, and she had not seen any other system that could resolve such disputes.
Despite the criticisms, she said Australia had a good family law system, which was the envy of the world because so much money was invested in mediation, but the biggest problem was court delays.
As head of jurisdiction, she has lobbied hard for more resources, but leaves the court cash-strapped and with litigants facing delays of up to three years.
More resources were needed to help settle disputes once they were in the court system but before they reached a trial, she said.
As she steps down, she is most depressed about the ongoing gender wars between mothers’ groups and fathers’ groups, to which she sees no end.
“It was like that when I started, it’s like that when I’m finishing … We are not much different from the rest of the Western world in that respect,” she said.