A parliamentary committee inquiring into the Family Court and family violence was abruptly cancelled yesterday over fears that members of parliament could be criticised for asking questions of judges.
The committee, which is specifically inquiring into the family law system, had months ago invited the Chief Justice of the Family Court, Diana Bryant, and the Chief Judge of the Federal Circuit Court, John Pascoe, to appear for questions about the often controversial workings of the court.
However, the public hearing was cancelled at late notice, according to a statement, “after concerns were raised” that committee members could run into the kind of trouble facing three cabinet ministers, who last week criticised the workings of the Victorian Supreme Court.
“In light of recent proceedings in the Supreme Court of Victoria, the chair (Liberal MP Sarah Henderson) was concerned to ensure that such appearances would not give rise to any issues relating to the doctrine of the separation of powers,” the statement said.
Three cabinet ministers were last week ordered to explain their criticism of the Victorian courts.
They may yet be prosecuted for their remarks.
According to the statement, the committee is now seeking the Attorney-General’s advice on “the appropriateness of senior members of the judiciary appearing for questioning by members of parliament before a parliamentary inquiry”.
The deputy chair, Labor MP Sharon Claydon, told The Australian the decision to cancel was made against her wishes.
“I was told it was to do with what was going on in Victoria, and about the separation of powers,” she said.
“I didn’t approve, because the evidence of the two chief justices is obviously crucial to what we are doing with our committee.
“I said: ‘I have confidence that two eminent justices have the capacity to determine whether they can attend, and what people can say, without anyone ending up in contempt.’
“They have appeared before public hearings before, on controversial matters. I thought it was disrespectful to them to cancel because of what is going on in (the separate case in) Victoria, but I was told the risk was too high.”
The Australian understands that Chief Justice Bryant and Chief Judge Pascoe were happy to front the family violence committee.