Budget 2018: Much Ado About Nothing

There is almost no change in Family Law in this year's budget - and that is a problem.


WHAT'S IN THIS YEAR'S BUDGET?


Hidden away on page 149 of the third portfolio budgetary statement for 2018-19 are four paragraphs which outline the current state of the family law courts in Australia. Running at a mild loss in 2017-18 (around $2.5million) it is hoped that internal efficiencies will take up this slack in coming years. The overall funding for the Federal Circuit Court, the main workhorse court for family law and many other areas, remains almost unchanged at around $95million.

A few changes are coming, however:


- Despite still being in front of a Senate inquiry, the new Parenting Panels have been funded to the tune of $2.5m. These will be "courts-lite", with doctors or psychologists able to sit on three-member panels that rule over parenting disputes instead of the traditional courts. The draft legislation is still being reviewed, but provides for these cases to go before Panels where both parties agree to the process, and they prohibit any party in the case appearing with a lawyer. This remains part of the Coalition Government's ongoing push to exclude lawyers from family law.


- $405,000 is set aside for more family consultants around Australia. (Family Consultants are experienced child professionals, often psychologists, who speak with children, mediate between parents and report to courts. This amount of funding may allow 4 or 5 new consultants nationwide... hardly a significant change.)


- A further $2m is put towards the Court's digitisation program to improve efficiencies and online access, a process which has been working remarkably well in recent years.


However, with the spending comes some pain. The major line entry for courts in the budget is an additional $4.2million in capital works (and more than an extra $1million per year in upkeep) for the High Court of Australia for improved security arrangements after a review showed these were insufficient. How will this be paid? Increased revenue by increased fees and costs in the "civil" federal courts, and indications of smaller fee increases in the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court.


...BUT STILL LESS THAN HALF WHAT THEY NEED...


One of the worst-kept secrets of 2014 was that the Government (and then-Attorney-General George Brandis) commissioned a report from KPMG in to the functioning of the family law system, and what would be required to make it function properly.


Not well, or over-resourced. Just what was required to make our family law courts work as they are supposed to.


The contents of the report have still not seen the light of day officially, and a vote by opposition and smaller parties in March 2018 resulted in a Senate motion calling for the report's release. However, some contents were leaked to The Australian newspaper, indicating that the base funding level for the system required an extra $200million.


The Government's response in the following budget (2015-16) was to cut funding from $180million to $150million and to advise all parties that "you'll simply have to do more with less." This funding has not been increased since this time; instead, "efficiencies" have resulted in a steady decrease in court funding.


...AND LEGAL AID GOES BEGGING


As with the theme of a "tax cut" budget that promises a surplus "within 12 months", there is little funding for actual services. There is no increase for the nation's Legal Aid Commissions and the critical under-funding here will continue, as it has for many years.


Given that legally aided cases feature a heavier number of disputes with family violence and child abuse allegations, this is continuing to result in large numbers of victims being refused access to the court system to resolve their parenting disputes.


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