On 17 February 2021, the Senate passed a government bill to merge the Family Court of Australia with the Federal Circuit Court of Australia. Here, we explain what the merger means, how the Courts will operate under the new changes and what it means for families going forward.

What changes have been made to the Family Court?

Parliament has now passed the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia Act 2020 and The Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Act 2020, which are currently awaiting Royal Assent.  

This means that the Family Court – which was established by Parliament in 1975 and commenced operating on 5 January 1976 – and the Federal Circuit Court will now no longer operate as two separate entities and will instead be combined into a new amalgamated court known as the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (FCFCA).

Under the changes, the merged Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia would have two divisions. The current Family Court of Australia would form Division 1, while the Federal Circuit Court of Australia would become Division 2.

The two Divisions, and the Court itself, would be headed by a single Chief Justice, and assisted by a Deputy Chief Justice. The Chief Justice would preside over Division 1 that will exclusively hear complex family law matters, and Division 2 which would hear family law matters as well as other general federal law matters that previously fell within the jurisdiction of the Federal Circuit Court.

The number of specialist judges under the new structure will increase, according to a statement released by the Family Court of Australia and Federal Circuit Court of Australia, with the intention that by August 2021 there will be 35 specialist judges in Division 1 and 43 in Division 2.

The bills to reform the federal family law courts were first introduced on 5 December 2019.  However, there was much criticism of the merger from the majority of Family Law Stakeholders, including the Law Council of Australia, Women’s Legal Services Australia, Community Legal Centres and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service. In November 2019, 157 people signed an open letter to the Attorney General opposing the bills, with fears that it could have devastating outcomes for vulnerable families and see victims of domestic abuse “fall through the cracks.”

In the media release, the Family Court of Australia and Federal Circuit Court of Australia stated that the Courts will still continue to provide specialisation in family law and the first Core Principle of the Courts is: the prioritisation of the safety of children, vulnerable parties and litigants, as well as the early and ongoing identification and appropriate handling of issues of risk, including allegations of family violence, are essential elements of all case management.”

What does this mean for you? 

If your matter is part of Lighthouse Project, on the national COVID-19 List, or if you currently have a matter before the Family Court of Australia or the Federal Circuit Court of Australia, these reforms will not have an immediate effect on your matter. In due course, arrangements will be in place to assist with the transition of those matters that are before the two separate Courts at the time that the reforms launch.

There are currently no plans to dispense with streamlining and case management initiatives such as the Lighthouse Project and the national COVID-19 List.

Children will remain the priority of the FCFCA, and the Court will still have an obligation to consider the need to protect the rights of children, to promote their welfare and ensure they are protected from family violence.

In the media statement released by the Family Court of Australia and Federal Circuit Court of Australia, the Hon. Justice William Alstergren – Chief Justice Family Court of Australia and Chief Judge Federal Circuit Court of Australia stated: “with change comes opportunity. I ask that we work together to create a world-leading family law system— one that we can all be proud of and one that the people of Australia and future generations of Australians deserve.” 

If you have a family law matter you would like to discuss, or concerns about an existing matter and would like to speak to an experienced family lawyer, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with Ivy Law Group us on (02) 9262 4003 or submit an online enquiry here.

The content of this article is intended as a general guide to the subject matter. For specific legal advice about your individual circumstances, please contact our experienced lawyers.

**UPDATE AS OF SEPTEMBER 1, 2021**

As of September 1, 2021, the two courts officially merged to become the new Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia

To learn more about how the new court will operate going forward and what it means for your family law matter, click below to read our article.

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