Significant changes for the Federal Circuit Court

News today has revealed dramatic changes to the way the Federal Circuit Court handles hearings in relation to Indigenous families.

According to the Australian, the court – which handles the great majority of family law matters – will become more accessible to Indigenous families in a number of ways, inculuding:

1. Holding Family Law hearings in Indigenous health centres, the first of which is scheduled to occur in La Perouse, one of Sydney’s largest Aboriginal communities.

2. Setting up new, easier procedures for grandparents who wish to take emergency court action involving children.

3. Looking at ways to involve extended family members – such as aunties and uncles – in proceedings involving children.

4. Simplifying court documentation and putting more towards community education.

5. Introducing cultural training for judges and traineeships for Indigenous people.

When interviewed by the Australian, Chief Judge John Pascoe said that the court environment was perceived by many Indigenous families to be intimidating:

For me, access to justice is about people being able to come to the court. How do we make it less threatening, how do we make it easier for people?

Historically, the relationship between Indigenous people and the court has been problematic. A longstanding association between the legal system and the removal of indigenous children has made many Indigenous people hesitant to get involved in any court processes.

Additionally, existing disadvantage and a lack of services – particularly in rural communities – has resulted in difficulties that are unique to Indigenous people.

While the Family Law Act explicitly requires the court to take into account ‘any need to maintain a connection with the lifestyle, culture and traditions of Aboriginal peoples or Torres Strait Islanders’ in assessing a child’s best interests, there has previously been a lack of culturally appropriate options for Indigenous children, and the aforementioned lack of services can make it difficult for a child to retain a connection with their cultural background.

Court reforms, however, are of significant benefit in changing this. The end goal is to reduce the rate at which Indigenous children are removed from families:

Indigenous children were 10 times as likely to be placed in care in 2012 and that rate has been increasing since 2000, ­according to the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

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