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The Family Court and Federal Circuit Court will continue to fast-track urgent family law matters filed through Christmas and into the new year, under the highly successful COVID-19 list system implemented in April.

The list was introduced during the height of the pandemic to triage urgent family law matters arising due to new restrictions and an uptick in family violence. The Family Court of Australia reported a 39 per cent increase in matters and National COVID-19 Registrar Brett McGrath told LSJ that family court registries had been inundated with requests to vary court-ordered parenting arrangements – as supervised visitation centres suddenly closed and families who lived across state borders could not travel.

Today, the courts announced that the COVID-19 list would continue to operate into 2021 and be expanded thanks to a Commonwealth Government investment announced in the Budget in October.

“With growing community concerns of increased family violence incidents and financial stress, the Courts are pleased to announce the expansion and continuation of the COVID-19 list,” a statement released by the courts today said. The statement said the COVID-19 list had received “widespread support and praise from community legal and support services, advocates for victims of domestic violence, and the legal profession”.

Chief Justice of the Family Court and Chief Judge of the Federal Circuit Court of Australia, Will Alstergren, said that the COVID-19 list had helped the courts to rapidly coordinate a responsive, national approach designed to quickly identify and deal with cases that needed urgent attention due to the impact of the crisis.

“The continuation and expansion of the COVID-19 list will provide families that are experiencing family law disputes as a direct result of the pandemic, with an avenue to have that specific issue heard and resolved,” Chief Justice Alstergren said.

Amid concerns over a sudden spike in new COVID-19 cases in the Northern Beaches of Sydney, which has sparked a five-day lockdown in the lead up to Christmas, the COVID-19 list will continue to assist families urgently rearranging their Christmas plans. However, in light of the new cluster, a spokesperson for the Family Court of Australia said face-to-face matters listed this week until Christmas eve will be heard remotely. Registry counters are also operating remotely, and skeleton staff will be available for emergency or urgent matters over the Christmas and new year period.

“We are preparing for the likely increase of urgent applications following the holiday period which is a time that often places additional emotional and financial stress on families. This is likely to be further exacerbated as government financial support measures are lifted,” Chief Justice Alstergren said.

“This initiative [the COVID-19 list] is one of a number of critical projects that have and will continue to be implemented that aim to reduce waiting times for litigants. In the New Year, the courts will announce further measures, such as a national contraventions list, to better support and assist litigants.”

The courts have promised that urgent applications meeting the COVID-19 criteria will be given a first return date before a National Registrar, Senior Registrar or Judge within three business days. Matters assessed as not urgent, but a “priority”, will be returned within seven business days.

National Registrars are in charge of assessing and triaging matters filed in the COVID-19 list. The courts have published online a range of examples of the kinds of applications that may be considered suitable, including family violence matters, parenting orders, medical complications, travel arrangements and vaccination disputes.

Pictured at top: National COVID-19 Registrar Brett McGrath