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Family law services and facilities will receive a crucial funding boost to alleviate escalating demand on the courts, under the Morrison Government’s 2020-21 Federal Budget announced in October.

The government promised to inject $87.3 million into front-line intervention services that help families going through a separation as part of its Economic Recovery Plan. Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter said this funding would go towards mediation and support services aimed at easing the court’s caseload by assisting families to resolve matters quickly without having to go to court. 

“Legal fees associated with protracted court action can rapidly eat away at the funds parents need to restart their lives after a separation, so it makes good sense to assist them to settle matters amicably wherever possible,” said Porter.

“Keeping matters out of the courts also helps to reduce congestion for those cases where court proceedings are necessary.” 

The Budget included $35.7 million in additional resources and judges for the Federal Circuit Court to ensure timely case hearings for migration and family law. It also announced $2.5 million to allow the federal family law courts to continue hearing urgent matters through a specialist COVID-19 list, which LSJ has previously reported on, and $4.8 million for the Family Violence and Cross-examination of Parties Scheme, introduced in 2019, which offers protection to victims of family violence by keeping them out of court and offering legal aid representation to represent them under cross-examination.

Will Alstergren, Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia Will Alstergren, Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia

There is, we think, a spike [in family violence] going on and we have real concerns.

Chief Executive Officer and Principal Registrar of the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court David Pringle said the additional funding would be “of great assistance”.

“Securing key and ongoing funding for judicial and registrar resources has been a priority for the courts,” Registrar Pringle said in a statement in October.

“The additional funding appropriately recognises the important work that the Courts do and the important need for further judicial and registrar resources to reduce litigation timeframes, support judges and alleviate some of their heavy workload. It is also an endorsement of the great work our skilled registrars are doing and the importance of expanding national lists like the COVID-19 lists.”

The Family Court has reported a 200 per cent increase in urgent applications amid the pandemic, many due to family violence and parenting matters that emerged during lockdowns across the country.

Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia Will Alstergren told ABC AM radio in August that lawyers and specialists working in family violence support services had a “real fear” that demand for family law services would increase as employment support measures like JobKeeper were reduced.

“There is, we think, a spike [in family violence] going on and we have real concerns,” he said.

Data compiled by Women’s Safety NSW from frontline domestic and family violence specialists confirms this suspected “spike” – reporting a substantial increase in the number of victims seeking assistance during COVID-19. Services reported a 40 per cent increase in women approaching domestic violence services for the first time.

The Law Council of Australia welcomed the funding increases announced in the Budget but was disappointed by a projected increase in Federal Court filing fees for migration litigants, as well as a lack of increased assistance for the community legal sector.

“The legal assistance sector has been chronically underfunded for years by successive governments, yet these frontline legal services have stood up to the challenge and worked tirelessly during the aftermath of the bushfires and throughout the pandemic to assist vulnerable Australians with their legal needs,” said President of the Law Council Pauline Wright.

“A properly funded legal assistance sector, together with adequate funding for Commonwealth courts and tribunals, are essential components to the COVID-19 crisis recovery. The Government’s failure to adequately fund this sector will only hurt our recovery.”