Brandis is no saviour of the Family Courts

After spending four years attacking free legal assistance, resisting cross-examination reform and creating crushing backlogs in the work of the court system, George Brandis’s self-proclaimed reinvention as the saviour of the family court system is galling.

MARK DREYFUS QC MP

SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL

SHADOW MINISTER FOR NATIONAL SECURITY

MEMBER FOR ISAACS

 

BRANDIS IS NO SAVIOUR OF THE FAMILY COURTS

 

After spending four years attacking free legal assistance, resisting cross-examination reform and creating crushing backlogs in the work of the court system, George Brandis’s self-proclaimed reinvention as the saviour of the family court system is galling.

George Brandis’s own inexplicable failure to appoint judges to vacant positions on the Family and Federal Circuit Courts is causing ongoing pain to families, and this terrible situation is not fixed by any budget announcements.

There are currently five vacant positions for judges around the country. Because of the delays in appointments, some families are having to wait up to three years to even have an initial hearing for their cases. For a child caught in a custody dispute, that can be a lifetime.

Labor is concerned that the government’s proposal to establish “Parental Management Hearings”, announced in Tuesday’s Budget, is an inappropriate response to this problem.

According to reports today, Senator Brandis is planning to create quasi-judicial panels of counsellors, lawyers and social workers who will be given the power to investigate custody disputes and make binding rulings. There is no information available as to how these appointees will be accredited or how the system will be regulated, and what safeguards would be in place to ensure the hearings are run responsibly. Labor is also concerned that decisions would only be reviewable by the Federal Court, which does not normally deal with family law matters.

Moreover, parents would not be permitted legal representation in the Hearings – a serious concern for the 1 in 5 family law matters where domestic violence is involved. Custody battles are one of the most complex and serious elements of family law and should remain in the hands of judges.

Labor is particularly concerned that no consultation appears to have been done ahead of this announcement. You cannot “test” something on distressed families and parents in the midst of custody battles to see if it works. These are people’s lives – you must make sure it is a good idea first.

If George Brandis really wanted to alleviate the pressure on family courts, he has a simple solution available – appoint more judges – or at the very least fill long-standing vacancies.

Labor is pleased that pressure from the community, opposition MPs and prominent Australians like Rosie Batty has dragged Senator Brandis into some sensible positions on family law issues.

That includes a last-minute backflip on devastating funding cuts for Community Legal Centres and Aboriginal Legal Services, and a belated commitment to ending the cross-examination of domestic violence victims by their abusers. However, Labor reiterates its concern that no funding allocation has been made to the latter proposal.

THURSDAY, 11 MAY 2017