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Monday, 26 November 2018
Page: 11397


Mr LEESER (Berowra) (16:07): Peter Miles used a rifle to shoot Katrina Miles and his four grandchildren as they slept in their beds, before walking back to the farmhouse to kill his wife of more than 40 years. Mr Miles's daughter, Katrina, had moved in with her parents after the breakdown of her relationship with the children's father, Aaron Cockman. Ms Miles and Mr Cockman were also undergoing a lengthy shared custody battle in the Family Court. I had the privilege of meeting Aaron Cockman, a very brave man, earlier this year. Mr Cockman described how the lengthy and costly court battle over child custody rights was an expensive exercise, adding a high degree of emotional strain.

The most recent tragedy in a string of mass murders and family violence occurred in a Perth suburb on 3 September, when Mr Anthony Harvey, aged 24, allegedly murdered his wife and his three children, murdering his mother-in-law the following day.

There is never an excuse for family violence. There's never an excuse for murdering another human being. People must never take the law into their own hands. These extreme reactions highlight the additional stress placed on deeply dysfunctional and fragile families going through lengthy court hearings, especially when there are child custody matters involved. Family law proceedings can also create an increased risk of suicide. It's been reported that there's a connection between family breakdown, relationship dissolution, separation, divorce and deaths by suicide, especially among men.

Parents Beyond Breakup is an Australian charity operating Dads in Distress and Mums in Distress groups. They work with parents who are struggling with family separation. In 2016, Parents Beyond Breakup noted that 350 parental suicides were avoided as a result of their assistance and services. As the chair of the Parliamentary Friends of Suicide Prevention, I commend them for the important work that they do. I had the chance to visit a Dads in Distress group in my electorate, run by Campbell Lennox, to see firsthand the work they do in sensibly navigating people through the issues that confront parents in the family law system. Many of the men I saw had been separated from their children for a long time. Many had terrible experiences with lawyers and the system. Dads in Distress helped them concentrate on getting through the system without getting angry about the injustices they saw. I was impressed with the level of sophistication of the program. Campbell described the stress and pain experienced by parents and children going through the Family Court.

It's become apparent to me that the adversarial system is not the right tool for managing most marriage breakdowns, and that lengthy delays in process add additional strain. What we've done, effectively, is put an adversarial court system in the middle of a major social problem, and it hasn't worked. What the reforms in this bill try to do is to make the process less cumbersome and less painful.

Family Court reform is required not only to mitigate extreme reactions but also to relieve the pressure on families experiencing the sadness, stress and trauma of family breakdown. ABS statistics show that in 2016 there were 46,604 divorces in Australia, with two divorces per thousand people. Of these divorces, over 40,000 children were involved. In the Berowra electorate, the census records that 7½ per cent of people are either divorced or separated. Improving the efficiency of the courts will reduce delays in the family law system and streamline the time it takes courts to process applications. This will considerably reduce the stress inflicted on families.

The Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court deal with a significant number of disputes, with approximately 22,000 applications for final orders received each year over the past five years. However, the courts have struggled to keep pace and to finalise those applications. For example, in 2016-17, the family courts finalised 600 fewer final order applications than they received. This has led to the backlog in final order family law matters pending in the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court, growing from 17,200 to 21,000 over the past five years. Reducing this backlog will positively impact on separating couples and their children, because delays in the court system only extend the conflict between the parties. The longer a matter takes before the courts and the more legal costs incurred, the less likely the parties are to have an amicable relationship post separation, which has a significant impact on any children involved.

Having two courts, the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court, responsible for family law has led to inefficiencies, confusion, delays, additional costs and unequal experiences for many families. Additional judicial resources and funding just won't fix the underlying structural problems here and the fragmented system. Deep structural reform is required to effectively expend taxpayer money and drive efficiency. The new system is designed to be simpler and faster and to help move 8,000 cases through the system each year.

I commend the Attorney-General on commissioning the PwC report, the Review of efficiency of the operation of the federal courts, in December last year. That report found that the age of cases awaiting resolution has increased in the last five years. Approximately 29 per cent of Federal Circuit Court cases and 42 per cent of pending Family Court cases are now older than 12 months. The national median time to trial has also increased to well beyond a year in both courts. In the Federal Circuit Court, median waiting times have increased from 10.8 months to 15.2 months. In the Family Court, it's from 11½ months to 17 months. This is a dramatic increase, and this has real, negative impacts on families waiting for their cases to be processed.

The current structure means each family has to go through a different court experience. Is it any wonder that families going through separation are confused? The family law application process varies significantly between the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court. This is due to a combination of the courts' legislative framework, including their respective acts, regulations and rules, and the operational and cultural practices that have evolved over time. Quite often, cases are transferred between both courts. In 2017, 1,200 families were the subject of transfer between the courts, some after 11 months of being in one court. These were 1,200 cases that had to start proceedings again in a new court, with new rules, procedures and processes. Clearly, this is wasting everyone's time and is a drain on court resources—not to mention creating considerable anguish for the families going through it.

There also appears to be inconsistencies in appeals adjudication, with 75 per cent of appeals from the Federal Circuit Court being heard by a full bench of three Family Court judges, despite their legislative ability to be heard by a single judge sitting alone. This contrasts with the Federal Court, where approximately 88 per cent of appeals from the Federal Circuit Court in general law matters are heard by a single judge.

It's not hard to pinpoint the system bottlenecks and argue the case for the urgent need for a consolidated court reform. The retiring Chief Justice of the Family Court, the Hon. John Pascoe, knows only too well of the challenges and pressures facing the family courts in terms of funding; judicial resources; judicial health and wellbeing; growing jurisdiction; complicating social factors, like drugs and violence; and ever-increasing case filings. The Chief Justice was also Chief Judge of the Federal Circuit Court of Australia for 13 years. Chief Justice Pascoe came to the bench having had a distinguished career as a legal practitioner and CEO, with broad involvement in extracurricular life, including his work with the Duke of Edinburgh award and broader work on child protection in Asia, which was highlighted at the ceremonial sitting of the Family Court to mark his retirement a few weeks ago.

I was working for my predecessor, Philip Ruddock, when he was Attorney-General and appointed the Chief Justice as Chief Federal Magistrate. The Chief Justice has always been an advocate for his court and sought to see the courts adequately resourced and respected. Under John Pascoe's leadership, His Honour developed what was the Federal Magistrates Court from a magistracy of 25 federal magistrates to a court of 65 judges. His appointment to the Family Court of Australia last year harnessed his administrative experience and jurisprudence, while allowing his new Chief Judge Alstergren to manage and further the success of the Federal Circuit Court. If the proposed reforms are enacted, Chief Justice Pascoe will have seen the two courts form into a single court of over 100 judges. His legacy will have been to ready a system of two courts that share one jurisdiction into a more streamlined model so as to better serve Australian families in distress and aid vulnerable children. I wish to pay tribute to Chief Justice Pascoe for his service to Australia in heading both of these difficult jurisdictions and for being a voice for court reform.

This bill merges the Federal Circuit Court of Australia and the Family Court of Australia into an overarching unified administrative structure known as the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia. These structural reforms would create a framework for common leadership, common management and comprehensive and consistent internal case management. This will, in effect, create a single point of entry and a consistent pathway for Australian families in having their family law disputes dealt with in the federal courts.

I also strongly support the proposal to fast-track appeals through a newly established family law appeal division in the Federal Court of Australia. This system will centralise appeals from the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia in family law matters. These structural changes will improve access to justice for families and provide greater certainty and consistency within the entire federal law system. These reforms will significantly improve the efficiency of the family law system, reducing backlog and driving faster, cheaper and more consistent resolution of disputes.

It's important to understand the detail of what is and what isn't being proposed. There are five key legislative amendments. First, the reforms don't abolish an existing court. Second, an overarching unified administrative structure will be established, with the government's intention that the FCFC would operate under the leadership of one chief justice, Chief Justice Alstergren, to be supported by a deputy chief justice, the former Labor Attorney-General Justice Robert McClellan. Third, more importantly, there'll be a single point of entry into the family law jurisdiction of the Family Court system. The issuing of common rules of courts, practice notes and directions will create consistent and effective internal case management approaches to family law, with a renewed focus on resolving disputes as quickly, inexpensively and efficiently as possible for the court and the parties. Ultimately, the reforms ensure that appropriate expertise and specialisation is retained within the new court structure. Finally, this bill will encourage common rules, forms, and practices and procedures, as well as case management, between the courts.

This isn't the first time Family Court reform has been discussed. Many family law experts, including judges, have welcomed the proposal of a single entry point. The split system and duplicated model with different rules, forms and processes have also drawn criticism. Despite the support for family law reform, previous attempts have failed. Reforms have been put on the backburner, meaning the suffering of families under stress has been even greater. We've reached a critical juncture, where the stakes are simply too high to ignore. We've seen the extreme reactions in the recent string of family murders. All these cases have common themes—lengthy child custody disputes in the courts.

The backlog of cases waiting to be resolved, coupled with the current cases slowly moving through the outdated system, has reached a crisis point for the people experiencing it, and it presents a compelling case for urgent reform. Court reform focused on efficiency and fast-tracking processes and on streamlining those processes is well overdue. I strongly support the government's Family Court reform proposal and congratulate the Attorney-General for tackling what has become an urgent issue in our country, in every community across our country, with the over 40,000 marriage breakdowns that end in divorce every year. It's my pleasure to commend the bill to the House.