In one week’s time on 1 September 2021, the long-awaited merger of the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court will take place. Following the merger, the courts will be known as the Federal Circuit Court and Family Court of Australia (FCFCA). From that date, all cases that are currently before the Family Court or the Federal Circuit Court will be transferred to the new Court under a unified set of Rules. All new cases that commence from that date will be dealt with by the FCFCA.
There will be two divisions within the FCFCA:
- Division 1 – will deal with complex family law matters and appeals. Complex matters in Division 2 can be transferred to Division 1;
- Division 2 – will deal with all other matters (excluding appeals).
The Central Practice Direction for the family law jurisdiction of the FCFCA that has recently been released outlines the key initiatives, being:
- Reducing unnecessary cost and delay in family litigation and facilitating proceedings being conducted with the least possible acrimony in order to minimise harm to children and families;
- Ensure the safety of families and children; and
- Achieve the overarching purpose of facilitating the just resolution of disputes according to the law as quickly, inexpensively and efficiently as possible.
Rather than the parties having to attend numerous court events between the commencement of proceedings and trial, as often occurs presently, the new pathway aims to define a clear and concise path for proceedings. The Court has released a diagram outlining that pathway:
Matters filed in the FCFCA should see the first court event take place within 6 to 8 weeks of filing. Dispute resolution or mediation should take place within 6 months of filing.
Perhaps the most significant outcome (if it eventuates) for the parties and practitioners, is the promise of a trial within 12 months of instituting proceedings. This would mark a significant change from the current situation, where matters are often waiting two to three years for a trial, and at times, a further year or two before judgement is handed down.
In preparation for the merger, many long-running matters were listed for callover in August 2021, in an effort to narrow the issues in dispute and, where appropriate, referring matters to mediation and dispute resolution.