Attorney-General Christian Porter has taken aim at the Law Council of Australia for “lecturing” Family Court Chief Justice John Pascoe on how to run his court, amid bitter infighting between the court’s judges.
The strife comes as Chief Justice Pascoe tries to overhaul the court’s processes to make it more efficient, including by sacking popular West Australian judge Stephen Thackray as head of its appeal division.
Justice Thackray sought to pour oil on the troubled waters at a special sitting in Sydney yesterday, cautioning colleagues in a packed courtroom to “resist the temptation to believe in quick-fix solutions” and saying he would stake his life on the integrity of his fellow appeal judges.
However, Mr Porter said he was “surprised” at criticism directed by the Law Council at Chief Justice Pascoe for removing Justice Thackray.
“I am very surprised that the Law Council thinks it appropriate to lecture the Chief Justice on how to administer his own court given the Law Council’s purported understanding of the independence of judicial decision-making and their proper role in supporting, not detracting from, the reputation of our independent judiciary,” Mr Porter said.
Justice Thackray has been replaced by Deputy Chief Justice Will Alstergren, who is also chief judge of the lower, and much larger, Federal Circuit Court and intends to fulfil both roles.
Mr Porter threw his support behind Chief Justice Pascoe and Chief Judge Alstergren’s reform attempts. He said the two judges were engaged in a “challenging project to substantially improve the efficiency and effectiveness in all areas of the family law jurisdiction to achieve better outcomes for families”.
“As Attorney-General, I am providing them with every encouragement and administrative support I can, and while ultimately decisions of substantive internal court management are for them, my observation is they are bringing an unprecedented energy to making a more efficient Family Court system which is in the best interests of all Australians,” he said.
Law Council president Morry Bailes wrote to Chief Justice Pascoe last Monday, saying the dual roles created a “real concern of perceived bias” and urging him to reconsider his decision. “As you may appreciate, the dual positions of Chief Judge of the Federal Circuit Court and now administrative leader of the Appeals Division of the Full Court of the Family Court of Australia, causes a real concern of perceived bias as matters from the Federal Circuit Court are often appealed to the Family Court of Australia,” Mr Bailes wrote.
It is understood Mr Bailes contacted both Chief Justice Pascoe and Chief Judge Alstergren to apologise for the leaking of his letter to The Australian.
Justice Thackray yesterday described his “complete horror” at seeing his photograph on the front page of The Australian, “something I had hoped I would never see in my life”.
He said he wished Chief Justice Pascoe “all the very best in that role, and I also extend best wishes to Deputy Chief Justice Alstergren in his work, both in this court and in the Federal Circuit Court, and now as the new head of the appeal division”.
And he said that in his “very long history of association with the judges of this court, I have found them to be the friendliest and most collegiate of people who go about their work fairly, respectfully, and with the utmost integrity”.
Senior West Australian family barrister Rod Hooper SC said Justice Thackray’s departure from the appeal division would be a great loss to the Family Court of Australia.