How well do our family courts work?

MANY of us will never see the inside of a family courtroom.

For us, the family court and federal magistrates court are mysteries, glimpsed only now and again through headlines.

Family dramas - stories about families - make headlines.

Most recently, four Sunshine Coast girls were in the media spotlight after the family court ordered that they be returned to Italy.

It ruled that their custody arrangements should be determined in Italy, where they had been living until 2010, before their mother brought them to Australia without their father's consent. Family court orders were issued to stop the children being identified. The dispute will go to the full bench of the high court in August.

In 2009, four-year-old Darcey Freeman's father dropped her off the Westgate Bridge in Victoria, as her two young brothers watched. The man, who has since been jailed for 32 years, had been involved in a custody dispute with Darcey's mum.

And four years ago, a father whose marriage had broken down, spirited away his three children from their mother's Brisbane home, sparking a statewide police manhunt. They were found in Nambour two days later.

They all came in the wake of family break-ups which ended up before a family court.

Behind the headlines, according to legal sources, the reality is that courts that deal with families do a good job in testing circumstances.

In 2010-11, more than 20 applications a day were made to the Family Court of Australia.

The court - made up of a federal magistrates court and the family court - dealt with 84,094 cases last year, up more than 9% on figures three years earlier.

About 90% of cases go before the federal magistrates court, which was created in 1999 to take pressure off the family court's dockets.

Statistics show that while rates of divorce in Australia have dropped over the past 40 years, fewer couples are marrying.

But internationally, the Australian divorce rate, at 2.2 people in every 1000 people, is high.

And de facto couples also can access the family court system if there is a relationship breakdown.

The courts can mediate and make judgments on the custody of children, and the division of property and money, as well as handling divorce applications.

The federal family court, which was established in 1975, is the superior court of the federal magistrates court.

It handles the more complex cases, often passed up by the magistrates court.

One such case was the four Coast girls, which involves the Hague Convention international agreement that Australia and Italy, among others, have signed.

Under more usual circumstances,

those who have to use the family courts to try to settle relationship breakdown disputes, often face issues that are intensely emotional and personal.

And because of that, family courts, at times aggressively protect the identities of those seeking their assistance, particularly when children are involved.

However, family court and federal magistrates court matters are generally held in open hearings.

"In Australia, (family law) covers divorce, children's orders, parenting arrangements, property division and spousal maintenance," Queensland's Family Law Practitioners' Association president Deborah Awyzio said this week.

They come under the Family Law Act 1975, a federal law which also created the Family Court of Australia.

"Child protection and domestic violence are dealt with under separate state and territory laws," she said.

Ms Awyzio, whose Brisbane practice specialises in family law, said couples whose relationship had irreparably broken down and who had children under 18 could ask the family court to determine child custody.

However, she said they were required to first access Family Disruption Resolution, a free mediation service, to try to come to an agreement.

If they could not, the case would be referred to the courts, which could make orders.

Ms Awyzio said couples, or one partner, could apply through family courts to resolve disputes over assets.

The federal magistrates and family courts also deal with divorce applications.

"The court's goal," the Family court website says, "is to deliver excellence in service for children, families and parties through effective judicial and non-judicial processes and high-quality and timely judgments.

"(It does this) while respecting the needs of separating families."

It may well do that, but both courts are handling complex issues.

And even those who have used the courts to help to sort out relationship issues admit they do not fully understand how it works.

Topics:  courts, family, family court



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