By Matthews Folbigg Lawyers
The year of 2020 has presented a multitude of challenges to the Family Courts of Australia. We have seen the Family Court respond to these challenges swiftly and boldly to ensure that Australian families are supported through the Family Law system in these difficult times. See below for some insight into some of the Court’s commendable innovations including:
1. The Virtual courtroom;
2. The COVID-19 List; and
3. The Lighthouse project.
The Virtual Court Room
In response to the COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing rules, the Family Courts are now operating on a virtual basis and are conducting Court hearings using two main platforms:
1. Video conferencing via Microsoft Teams; and
2. Telephone conferencing
This introduction of the virtual Court room has been bolstered by the implementation of an Online Court file which allows lawyers and litigants to file and access Court documents online.
Although hearings are now taking place virtually, the formalities of usual Court room etiquette and behaviour remain an expectation.
Due to the rise in urgent applications being made during COVID-19, the Family Court introduced a fast-tracked Court list known as the COVID-19 List to swiftly deal with urgent applications related to COVID-19. Applications that meet the criteria will come before a Registrar or a Judge within 3 business days of being assessed as urgent. Examples of situations where the COVID-19 List may be appropriate include:
1. Disputes about a child being vaccinated against COVID-19;
2. Parenting arrangements for when a parent or child has undergone a COVID-19 test;
3. Travel arrangements during border closures;
4. Difficulties relating to contact arrangements and changeovers arising from school or contact centre closures.
The Lighthouse Project
Another innovation of the Family Court is the launch of the Lighthouse Project, a $13.5 million Government funded pilot dedicated to improving legal responses to family violence or other risk behaviours including alcohol and drug abuse. Parties who file parenting only applications in certain Registries will now be asked to complete a confidential online questionnaire to assist the Court in identifying high risk cases early on in the proceedings. This will enable the Court to triage matters to an appropriate pathway based on the identified level of risk. Cases with high risk factors will be referred to the Evatt List, a specialised Court List where matters are heard before Judges with specialised experience and training in family violence and other risk. It is anticipated that this new innovative project will help to improve the safety of families and expedite appropriate urgent cases.