Survivors of domestic and family violence will now be at greater risk in the legal system after the Morrison Government passed legislation on Wednesday which merged the Family Court with the Federal Circuit Court.

Partnering with One Nation and independent Senator Rex Patrick, the Government will abolish the Family Court system and move matters into the mainstream court system.

Attorney-General Christian Porter supported the merge, saying it would encourage a faster and cheaper method for families to have their matter heard in court.

“Successive governments have been talking about delivering reform of the family courts for decades — the Morrison Government has delivered,” the Attorney-General said.

The Bill introduces a new single court structure, the Federal Circuit and Family Court (FCFC).

“Families who need to use the court to resolve matters at the end of a relationship have a right to expect that the system will help them settle their matters quickly, efficiently and at as low cost as possible,” Porter said.

On Tuesday, more than 155 stakeholders in Australia’s family law system signed an open letter to the Attorney-General opposing the merge.

The letter outlined concerns for the impact on families with the abolishment of the specialised service.

They noted the concern that the Bill was listed without warning overnight and was the first code of business on Tuesday morning — despite being absent on the Government’s draft legislation program for the Senate.

“As the impacts of the devastating shadow pandemic of family violence experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic continue, now is not the time to proceed with an unnecessary, risky Bill that has been opposed by all non-Government members of the House of Representatives,” said Law Council President Dr Jacoba Brasch QC on Tuesday.

Women’s Legal Services Australia spokesperson Angela Lynch AM noted the service’s concerns for safety.

“Our opposition to the proposed merger of the family courts is centred on ensuring the safety and best interests of the child and the safety of adult victim-survivors of family violence in family law proceedings,” she said.

“Safety must come first in family law.”

The Morrison Government have passed the legislation in the midst of Ochre Ribbon Week, a week dedicated to eliminating violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children.

National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (NATSILS) Co-Chair Priscilla Atkins voiced her concerns for First Nations people.

“If the merger passes through the Parliament, we will lose our standalone, specialist, superior Family Court. This will disproportionately impact the most vulnerable including Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children,” Atkins said.

The Aboriginal Legal Service NSW/ACT also took to Twitter to voice their concerns regarding the merge.

“Changes are required to make the Family Court work more quickly and be more responsive to families’ needs — but the answer is not getting rid of it altogether,” the organisation said.

Victorian Greens Senator Lidia Thorpe also took to Twitter.

“I know from my own personal experience, and from the experiences that others have shared with me, just how bad family violence can be — how much we need specialist services to help break the cycle of violence, and to keep more women and kids safe,” she wrote.

“But for years, this Liberal Government has cut this specialised Court’s funding and its resources as well as slashing the culturally-safe support services that women and children rely on, including legal assistance services.

“It’s so hard for women to get protection and justice for themselves and their children. It just got even harder.”

Investigative journalist Jess Hill called attention on Twitter to the recent Family Law Inquiry which is set to deliver its findings on February 25.

“What was the point of holding a family law inquiry if the plan was just to go ahead and abolish the Family Court a week before the findings were due?” Hill wrote.

By Rachael Knowles