Lawyer says family law chronically underfunded and a parliamentary inquiry a "joke"

Pauline Hanson is the deputy chair of a family law parliamentary inquiry.
Pauline Hanson is the deputy chair of a family law parliamentary inquiry.

A Port Macquarie lawyer has slammed a decision by the federal government to hold a joint parliamentary inquiry into the family law system.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the inquiry on September 17.

Liberal MP Kevin Andrews has been announced as the chair of the inquiry and Pauline Hanson the deputy chair.

"This inquiry will allow the Parliament to hear directly from families and listen to them as they give their accounts of how the family law system has been impacting them and how it interacts with the child support system," said Mr Andrews.

Lawyer Kevin Byrnes described the family law system as "chronically underfunded" but labelled an inquiry a "joke".

Mr Byrnes has been practising family law in the Port Macquarie region for the last 30 years.

"They have just had an inquiry and we haven't even considered the recommendations that have been made," he said.

"The don't need another review, they need funding for the existing system."

An Australian Law Reform Commission review into the family law system made 60 recommendations in April this year.

The federal government is yet to formally respond to those recommendations.

The House of Representatives also held a parliamentary inquiry into the family law system in 2017.

You can start the matter and by the time they finish it the children are adults.

Kevin Byrnes

Mr Byrnes said judges were simply overloaded.

"The amount of work the Federal Circuit Court had to deal with is extraordinary," he said.

"I had a matter that was part heard in August last year, the case went for two days and it was adjourned until November this year, more than a year afterwards.

"You can imagine what happens in the meantime.

"The system needs fixing but it needs fixing by more funding.

"There needs to be significantly more judges."

Mr Byrnes said matters can take five to six years before they get finalised.

"You can start the matter and by the time they finish it the children are adults," he said.

"I don't know anyone in the system who favors this review, everybody who deals with the system is frustrated."

There are two courts that deal with family law matters - the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court.

The Federal Circuit Court and the Family Court both sit in Newcastle with the Federal Circuit Court sitting in Port Macquarie four weeks in the year.

Mr Byrnes said Federal Circuit Court judges in Newcastle are in charge of around 600 family law cases each.

Mr Byrnes was also skeptical about a recommendation by the Australian Law Reform Commission to give states and territories control over the family law system rather than the Commonwealth.

"Why would you do that, undo a system of courts and create a whole new system?" he asked.

"The cost of that would just be extraordinary, I think it is ridiculous."

Another Port Macquarie lawyer Tas Tasdemir said the "system seemed to be working" but agreed matters move slowly.

People need to appreciate that family law is not an area which is five minutes in and out and that deals with it.

Tas Tasdemir

"The system that we have looks at the best interests of the child," he said.

"It works but it is slow. But you have to remember that not everything goes according to plan.

"People need to appreciate that family law is not an area which is five minutes in and out and that deals with it."

Mr Tasdemir agreed there was too much pressure on judges.

"Unfortunately we have a situation where judges are being overworked," he said.

"They just need more judges to fill in the positions where they can get the matters sped up."

Liberty Domestic and Family Violence Specialist service based in Port Macquarie also voiced concerns about the family law inquiry.

"We need action on family violence, not another inquiry," CEO Kelly Lamb said.

"This is the third inquiry into the family law system in the past three years and many of the terms of reference have already been covered in previous reports.

"This inquiry will further delay much needed reform in the sector to address the fragmentation that exists between federal and state matters, as well as the high costs and long delays in the system."

Law Council of Australia President, Arthur Moses empathised with the "understandable weariness and wariness from those who work tirelessly in this space about the utility of another inquiry".

But Mr Moses said a joint parliamentary inquiry could be a circuit breaker arguing ideas raised in the late stage of the Law Reform Commission inquiry into family law have not been fully explored.

"These ideas ...have merit and must be discussed to build public support for any changes," he said.

"I believe this joint parliamentary inquiry can be the catalyst to drive the holistic change we all agree is so desperately needed.

"This inquiry must involve the whole community - not just politicians, lawyers, accountants and bureaucrats."

Deputy Chair of the inquiry Senator Hanson has already come under fire for describing some women as "liars" for making false allegations of domestic violence during family law matters.