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Looking at Law Reforms – Local Court making Family Law decisions

I’ve been having a look at the Government’s proposed amendments to the Family Law Act contained in their Family Law Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures) Bill 2017.

Today I’m focusing on the proposal for increasing the Local Court’s ability to deal with division of the family’s assets.

At the moment, the Local Courts are limited to dealing with property claims in Family Law where the value of the assets are less than $20,000. That’s not particularly practical for most families! This cap on the asset value hasn’t changed since 1988. It is definitely time to review this.

The Government’s proposal is to be able to set the asset value limit from time to time using the Regulations, and otherwise have each State’s local court civil limit apply. This can be confusing – for example, in NSW and Victoria the civil limit is $100,000, and in Qld it is $150,000. My view is that it would be far more practical and sensible to have a National standard – as Family Law is a National jurisdiction. This is particularly useful for people who live near State borders.

I would support an increase in the asset value cap to $300,000. This would see people accessing the Local Court where their property pool is modest, and assist people living in rural areas in particular, not having to troop into major towns to have their assets dealt with.

It also means that if the Local Court is handling the parenting case, possibly an AVO case as well, a family with a small pool of assets would usually have to go to the Family Law Courts to have their property division sorted out. With an increase in the asset value cap to $300,000, most families with modest assets won’t have to be spread across two different court systems

No matter how the asset cap is increased, if this change is going to make a proper impact on our Family Law System then it will require the State and Federal Treasurers to ensure there is money available to properly fund this inevitable increase in the workload of the Local Court Magistrates. There’s no point in having a practical and sensible piece of legislation, if there aren’t enough Magistrates to do the work.

Not only will we need proper funding, but proper training will be necessary too – traditionally, in the City regions, our Local Courts are entirely reluctant to take Family Law applications.   Understandably, on the one hand – there is a Sydney Registry, Parramatta Registry and Wollongong Registry of the Family Law Courts all available to deal with the very specialised Family Law cases. Local Court Magistrates, who mostly deal with criminal law cases and civil claims, don’t have a great deal of exposure Family Law cases. Therefore, if they are going to be expected to make decisions about property division, they are going to need training if they haven’t dealt with these types of cases before.

As it is, the Local Court already has quite some jurisdiction for parenting cases, but it is almost impossible to have our own Sutherland Local Court exercise their powers in this area.

Join with me, call upon our local Members – the State Attorney-General, the Hon. Mark Speakman SC MP, and the Federal Treasurer, the Hon. Scott Morrison MP, to take up this call for practical and sensible resourcing of the Local Courts.

If you’re interested in having a look at the Explanatory Memorandum and a copy of the Bill itself, click here: