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Senator: FCFCOA changes reducing wait times

The rollout of changes to the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (FCFCOA) over the past six months has seen a dramatic reduction in judicial workloads, according to Attorney-General Assistant Minister Senator Amanda Stoker.

The Queensland LNP Senator told the Bar Association of Queensland’s Annual Conference yesterday that the successful merger of the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia on 1 September last year marked a major change in the history of Australia’s family court system.

Senator Stoker said the dual court structure and overlapping jurisdiction had led to inefficiencies, confusion, delays, additional costs, and inconsistent experiences for many court-users.

“Put simply, it led to poor outcomes for children and families,” she said. “One of the clearest problems with our federal and family court system has been the extensive backlog of cases.”

Under the previous system, it could take up to 26 months for a case to be resolved in the Federal Circuit Court, with the median time to trial of 21 months. For the Family Court, it could take up to 38 months for a case to be resolved, with the median time to trial of 24 months.

However, the reforms were enabling an estimated 8000 additional cases to be finalised each year.

“This will have a massive impact on court wait times,” she said. “The primary target is for around 90% of family law cases to be finalised within 12 months, with the median time to trial to be approximately 10 months – meaning wait times and finalisation rates will be cut in half.

The impact so far

“It has only been a few months since the reforms were implemented, but we are already seeing the early signs of success.

“Registrars have undertaken around 13,000 court hearings which would otherwise have been undertaken by judges. As a result, the average docket size for judges has reduced dramatically.

“In May 2021, the average number of matters for judges of Division 2 of the FCFCOA was 330. This has reduced to 193 as at 31 January 2022 – a decrease of over 41%.

“This has freed judges to focus on trials and complex cases involving family violence and other risks to children.

“Over 7500 dispute resolution conferences have been conducted in the last 16 months, with more than 50% resolving.

“This has been supported by the new case management reforms and accompanying funding for additional registrars and family consultants to conduct alternative dispute resolution conferences.

“Significant inroads are even being made into the large backlog of family law cases, with the pending caseload having fallen by 12% since September 1 last year. Many of these cases have been in the court system for years.

“The number of cases awaiting trial in Division 1 of the FCFCOA has also substantially reduced, falling from 300 in the largest registries to around 50 cases.

“These are significant results, which will have a real impact on communities in Queensland and around the country.

“Reforms to shift the front-end case management work from judges to registrars is providing a pathway for more cases to be heard quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively. And it’s providing a pathway for high-risk cases to be identified early, to ensure the safety of vulnerable parties and children.

Benefits for regional and rural Queensland

“The increased number of registrars available to conduct hearings and dispute resolution conferences has also provided greater access to justice for litigants in rural and regional Queensland.

“Already there are additional registrars located in regional areas including Townsville, Cairns and Rockhampton,” Senator Stoker said.

“The Government has also committed to expanding the Family Advocacy and Support Services to an additional 26 locations across Australia from 1 July 2022.

“This will enhance access to critical frontline legal and social support services for parties in family law matters involving family violence.”

In Queensland this access would increase from three existing locations to a total of 11 locations in all FCFCOA registries and circuit locations, across rural and regional areas.

“I acknowledge the concerns raised by some stakeholders,” Senator Stoker said. “Further reforms may be necessary to refine the new processes, and feedback from practitioners and other legal experts will be important in the process.

“The Government will continue to monitor and review the reforms, to ensure they achieve the intended outcome of a modern court responsive to the needs of litigants.”

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