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Senate forces committee to extend inquiry time into Court merger bills

The Senate crossbench, the Greens and Labor have combined to pass a series of rare motions forcing the Government controlled Senate committee to considerably extend the time allocated for the inquiry into the court merger bills.

From originally allocating just three weeks for submissions to be made (due 14 September), a motion introduced by Centre Alliance Senator, Rex Patrick, has extended the time for stakeholders to provide submissions until 23 November.

A second motion, also introduced by Senator Patrick, then forced the committee to hold its hearings following the close of submissions on 23 November.

Prior to the second Senate motion, the committee was intending to hold public hearings prior to the submission due date and then tabling the final report the next business day after the closing date for submissions – a most unusual and concerning approach.

The result of these motions is that the committee must change its final reporting date of 26 November to accommodate a considered public hearing process, meaning that the report and the subsequent legislation will not be completed until 2019.

The Law Council strongly welcomed the extended inquiry dates, having fiercely advocated to parliamentarians for the need for more time to consider one of the biggest structural changes to Australia’s justice system in decade.

The new timeline will not only allow more time for the Law Council to consult with its constituent bodies about the impact of the bills, but also for those mums and dads who are unfortunately caught up in the system to tell their often painful stories.

The new timelines also gives the committee the opportunity to take into consideration the Australian Law Reform Commission’s Review of the Family Law System, which is due to be delivered to government on 31 March 2019.

The Law Council has long-held the view that the ALRC’s review – which the former Attorney-General called “the first comprehensive review of the family law system since the commencement of the Family Law in 1976” – must come before the Senate committee report.

It is crucial the findings of the ALRC review are considered by parliament before the bills are voted on, these findings are likely to impact on and inform consideration of the structure of the federal family courts in a way that best serves Australians.

Not to do so is putting the cart before the horse.

In a recent opinion piece on the issue which was published in The Australian, President Morry Bales acknowledged this has been a problem decades in the making and while reform is urgently needed, Australians are never best served by rushed parliamentary decisions.

Rather than waiting for the recommendations from its own landmark review, Attorney-General Christian Porter is pushing for a total restructure of the family courts by the end of the year a merging of the Federal Circuit Court and the Family Court into a single entity.

The difficulty with that approach is one of timing. The breadth and depth of the reform requires very extensive consultation including proper consultation with the public.

As it stands, the measures introduced into parliament provide no extra funding for the chronically under-resourced court system or associated support services, which enable the court system to deal with cases more quickly.

We should ask why after decades of letting the courts be eroded by funding cuts, by both sides of government, we are now asked so very quickly to sign up to a significant structural change without the benefit of the ALRC report and with seemingly minimal support from the sector. The biggest changes to the family law system in 40 years need to come after the most comprehensive review ever held into the system.

The Law Council again commends the Senate for its motions and for putting policy before politics. It particularly thanks Senator Rex Patrick (Centre Alliance), Senator Griff (Centre Alliance), Senator Hinch (Justice Party), Senator Storer (Independent), Labor and the Greens.

Read more: Policy must be before politics: Senate motion extending court reform submission date applauded - 12 September; Senate's further motion to ensure proper consultation on court merger bills praised – 18 September.

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