THE safety of children and survivors of domestic violence will be put at risk if the family courts are merged, lawyers from across the country have warned.
Australia’s peak legal bodies have penned an open letter to the federal attorney-general, urging him to abandon “flawed” plans to combine the Family Court of Australia and Federal Circuit Court.
They are concerned the merger will erode the specialist treatment of domestic violence and family law.
“The safety of children and adult victims-survivors of family violence in the family law system must be a government priority and must come first,” Women’s Legal Services Australia spokeswoman Angela Lynch said.
Lawyers say they understand and support having a single entry point to the family courts and common rules so the system is easy to navigate.
“However, there are different ways this can be achieved,” their letter said.
“This can be done without abandoning the benefits otherwise available to children and families from a properly resourced and specialised court system.”
The groups have spoken out in support of quick and cheap access to justice, and acknowledge efficiencies can be achieved within the court system, but have warned this must not come at the cost of safety.
“Safety must come first in family law.”
The groups are concerned the merger could have a range of unintended consequences including a reduction in specialist judges, poorer decisions and increased costs for litigants.
They fear the changes would have a disproportionately negative effect on indigenous Australians.
Lawyers want a model that retains a stand-alone, superior family court and increases family law and domestic violence specialisation.
“The safety of children and adult victims-survivors of family violence requires increased specialisation,” they said.
“The proposed merger serves only to undermine that need.”
The legal experts have asked for further consultation on alternative changes to the family courts.
In the meantime, they have recommended the introduction of ongoing court-based family violence risk assessments.
They also want early determination of domestic violence, and increased competency of all family law system staff in handling the issue.