The Role of the Family Court of Australia

father reading to daughter

The Family Court of Australia is a specialised court for dealing with matters relating to family law. As a federal court, it deals with cases around the country and includes many specialist judges and other legal professionals with experience in family law. Although cases can be decided by a judge in family court, many are resolved during mediation and dispute resolution processes beforehand.

Structure of the Family Court of Australia

Recently, the Family Court of Australia was combined with the Federal Circuit Court to create a single entity: the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia. These court reforms occurred in September last year and are laid out in the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia Act 2021.

In this new structure, there are two divisions. Division 1 deals with family law matters and has 35 specialist family law judges hearing both trials and appeals. Division 2 deals with family law, migration and general federal law matters. This division has 76 judges, which are a mix of specialists in family law and experts in various areas of general federal law and migration.

The priority of the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia is to process cases quickly in a way that minimises harm and risk to children and other vulnerable people. The Court system recognises the stress and pressure that lengthy judicial processes can have on people, and they have worked hard to create a more efficient system so that unnecessary delays are avoided. They aim to resolve up to 90 per cent of cases within a twelve-month period.

The Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia hears cases throughout Australia, except in Western Australia, where the Family Court of Western Australia is the specialist court.

Family Law

Family Law is commonly considered one of the trickiest and most emotional areas of legal practice. Unlike other areas of law, which can be largely detached and practical, family disputes are rife with emotion.

Additionally, family law often involves children, which are at risk of experiencing trauma and related problems if a case is poorly handled.

Family law includes a number of different areas. A common sector involves marriages, divorces and separations. While the end of a marriage is an everyday occurrence in Australia, sometimes the breakdown of these legally binding relationships become messy. This is especially the case when custody of children or large sums of money and assets are involved in divorce settlements.

The Family Court will manage cases relating to child support, or the financial support to provide for a child under 18. In most cases, the biological parents of a child are both legally required to contribute to child support payments. However, in cases of divorce, disputes and unclear parentage, child support can lead to legal problems.

Finally, issues of family violence and control – including physical, economic and emotional abuse and coercion – are also managed by family court, although serious crimes against a romantic partner or child can end up in the criminal court system. Family court can assist with intervention orders and other methods of protection.

Principles of the Family Court

There are five guiding principles of the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia which underpin the Court’s actions and decision-making.

In recent years, the Court has made an effort to innovate and be a modern organisation, embracing technology to deliver outcomes more efficiently and effectively.

They are also committed to reducing delays and emotional stress for all parties. As part of this, they prefer people to engage in genuine attempts at dispute resolution and avoid litigation where possible. The Court is improving their messaging so people understand their options and know how to manage disputes in a way that leads to better outcomes.

There is a new emphasis on risk to children and the importance of protecting vulnerable people from Court processes.

Finally, the Court is committed to building on the expertise of judges, registrars and other staff to ensure they have a knowledgeable pool of resources at their disposal.

Cases in the Family Court

When you take a case to Family Court, there are a number of steps that you will go through.

Within six to eight weeks of filing your case, you will have a ‘first court event’. This is a procedural hearing where the judicial officer will hear from the parties about what steps need to be taken to prepare the matter for the next stages of the Court process.

The next step is Dispute Resolution. Many cases are resolved following this. If not, your case will continue to a Compliance and Readiness Hearing. The purpose of this hearing is to ensure the parties have complied with all court orders and directions and are ready to proceed to a final hearing. Sometimes, the case will be agreed and resolved after this step.

The Final Hearing is where a judge makes their final determination. This hearing make take several days, depending on the complexity of your case. You or your lawyer will be given the opportunity to present your case to the judge ahead of their ruling.