CENTRAL Victorian service leaders have expressed alarm at plans to merge the Family Court with the Federal Circuit Court.
Leaders of the Bendigo Law Association, Loddon Campaspe Community Legal Centre, O'Farrell Robertson McMahon Lawyers, Annie North, and Women's Health Loddon Mallee have raised concerns at the proposal, which seems set to pass parliament.
More than 155 stakeholders, including retired Family Court and Federal Circuit Court judges, have called for a stand-alone, specialist family court to remain.
In an open letter to the Attorney-General, they warned the proposed merger could undermine the safety of children and adult victim-survivors of family violence.
Annie North chief executive and WESNET national chair Julie Oberin believed dismantling the stand-alone Family Court would be a disaster.
"Identifying and responding to family violence is such a specialist area where drastic improvements need to be made, not so-called reforms that will put more children and victims at risk," Ms Oberin said.
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She said the Family Court needed strengthening, not weakening.
"I strongly support the need for immediately strengthening court-based family violence risk assessment practices, the early identification of family violence and increasing family violence risk assessment and management competencies across all professionals in the family law system," Ms Oberin, who is among the letter's signatories, said.
"I agree that safety of children and victim-survivors are paramount and merging the two entities into a watered down entity with such a broad church of issues to address will take away the specialist focus needed on families and the extremely high prevalence of family violence risk in separating couples."
Bendigo Law Association president Juliana Smith believed the proposed merger would be detrimental to the administration of family law.
"The identity of the court will change significantly and there will not be a court dedicated just to family law, which is a very complex area of law that is fundamental to the functioning of our society," Ms Smith said.
"It takes away from the specialisation, and the problems that need to be addressed won't be addressed by this merger."
She called for more investment in the Family Court.
"There is a key opportunity for the government to look at servicing regional areas, particularly in our area because we've got a new court in a couple of years' time," Ms Smith said.
Many of the people who come to the Loddon Campaspe Community Legal Centre are seeking help for family law matters.
Managing lawyer Clare Sauro said the centre's staff were already concerned about the lack of support and services for people navigating the system, many of whom had experienced family violence.
"The merger does not have a strong evidence base nor support by experts," Ms Sauro said.
"It is very concerning that the government is appearing to rush such significant change."
Proposed legislation was listed as a priority item of business for federal parliament on Tuesday. Stakeholders have opposed the merger for three years.
"Whilst we support improvements to the family law system, they must be well researched, tested and ensure the safety and protection of the vulnerable people including children. Proceeding prematurely can have disastrous consequences for the families in our region," Ms Sauro said.
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Accredited family law specialist and O'Farrell Robertson McMahon Lawyers director Marika McMahon urged lawmakers to listen to the huge amount of people with broad and deep experiences who were saying the merger was a really backward step for Australia.
"What really needs to occur is looking at some of the previous recommendations regarding how to improve the system and to actually look at increasing the level of funding so it can deliver the services needed within the court," Ms McMahon said.
She said a lot of the deficiencies in the existing system came from years of the family court system being underfunded and not funded to do the depth of service that's required.
"If the system was adequately resourced, the current system would be the ideal one," Ms McMahon said.
She believed the proposed merger would lead to a lot of uncertainty and could make matters slower and more complex for the individuals involved.
Women's Health Loddon Mallee chief executive Tricia Currie said the proposed merger seemed like using a sledgehammer when a finer instrument was required.
"What we're seeing is a very important system in our society that is being reformed and does not have the voice of women and children in it," Ms Currie said.
"When a restructure of important social architecture is happening, what we know to work towards gender equality is we do need to have the voice of those who are impacted as part of it.
"That, in itself, is left wanting in this reform."
She believed ignoring the voices of those who were part of the legal system and leading in the response to family violence was a grave error.
Women's health agencies were among those to sign the open letter, though not WHLM specifically.
- with AAP
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