Changes to the Family Court

February 18, 2021

I feel really fortunate that I haven't personally had to go through a Family Court experience, because the most distressing calls I get in my electorate office are from people who have been through that process—from mothers, from fathers and from grandparents. The group I don't hear from as much is the children, but we in this place all know that it's the children who are going to be the biggest losers out of the consequences of this terrible decision to roll a specialist court, one that was established to have specific skills and expertise, into a system that deals with a multitude of other matters. The federal circuit courts are dealing with a huge array of matters. I have friends who are judges in the system, and I know the variety of matters and the burden that they already carry.

On this side of parliament, I think we are just shocked that this government has shown so little respect for the advice it's received from a multitude of bodies—from judges themselves, from child welfare experts and from anybody who has had anything to do with the court system. No-one thinks that the court doesn't need reform, but it doesn't need reform to get rid of it. It needs reform to strengthen it. More than anything, it needs a lesser load for judges to carry. We could extrapolate that across the entire system, because we have seen so many judges not being replaced.

When we think about the Family Court, one of the things that I think about is the responsibility those judges carry. One of my very earliest memories of understanding what the Family Court was about was to do with the death of the person I knew as Aunty Pearl. This was one of the terrible attacks on Family Court judges that occurred in Sydney. It was the uncle of one of my very close friends who was the target, and it was Aunty Pearl, his wife, who died. My friend Karen Catalano carried that, and that's a horrible way to start to understand that Family Court matters can be really lethal. So, for me, there's always been a huge amount of respect and awe for the responsibility that Family Court judges carry. I think this sort of decision says to those judges: 'You are not special. We don't respect what you do. We don't think it carries any additional weight.' Yet anyone who's had anything to do with the Family Court knows the burden of responsibility that those judges carry. It is extremely short-sighted of this government to be making a decision that gets rid of that court. In fact, I know I'm going to get emails about this in my office.

Some people will say, 'Well, something had to change,' but they'll say: 'Was this really the change that was needed? How is it going to help people get a better decision? How will it help them have a less traumatic experience of what is already an awful situation for a family to find itself in?' You don't end up at the Family Court because everything has gone really well. You end up there because of a series of really difficult situations. What we see on this side is that it is people that are most affected; it's kids who are most affected, and this will have a lasting legacy for those children. I don't think it's going too far to say that people will look back at this decision in future years and express absolute disgust that a government saw fit to remove an institution that for so many decades has provided not a perfect outcome for families but a way of getting some sort of resolution.

What we should be seeing is an improvement to that court—support. I know that means money, but, my goodness, an investment in this process can transform lives and make a huge difference to how families together move on from the already awful experience of divorce and family breakdown. I know I'm not going to be the only one on this side who feels disgust—that is the only word that comes to mind. We have put up extraordinarily reasonable arguments, but so have the experts in this field. If you won't listen to us, you should have at least been listening to the experts, who counselled at every step against taking this path.