Magistrates, small pools and family violence

Magistrates, small pools and family violence

At the end of last year a bill was introduced to allow summary court magistrates to hear more family property cases. What are the implications for vulnerable families experiencing violence?

The bill responded to recommendations by the Family Law Council and the Victorian Royal Commission into family violence to assist women and children trying to leave a violent relationship and to access funds without having to approach the family courts. It was hoped this would enable more timely and holistic response to multiple legal needs of vulnerable families without them having to navigate multiple courts.

The current property pool limit that summary courts may deal with (unless parties consent) is $20,000.  The bill will enable states and territories to set their own limit on the asset pool that summary courts can divide, possibly to $100,000 which is the current civil property limit.

This makes lots of sense for several reasons:

  • vulnerable separating families are likely to come before summary courts to address issues of safety to women or children
  • many vulnerable families have few assets, or a lot of debt
  • needs are often urgent: to continue payment of a mortgage or debts (or not, where the debt is in her name, but for property he has possession of), to get access to a vehicle, to relocate
  • even if separating couples don’t have much between them, high property values mean that it their net assets are very likely to be worth more than $20,000
  • it facilitates timely access to justice for people in rural and regional areas.

Enabling one court to address all the elements of a separation may reduce time, cost, pressure and risk. It may enhance access to justice.

Assuming the bill is passed, what more needs to be done to ensure these objectives are achieved? Training of summary court justices was recommended by both the Family Law Council and the Royal Commission. Do public and private lawyers need to be re-acquainted with the jurisprudence of small property pools or the value of urgent maintenance applications? What support do self reqprsented litigants require?

If you are in Sydney on the evening of 21 March, you might like to join the discussion about these and other important questions in a presentation I am making to the Law Society of Greater Sydney: City Tattersalls Club, Celebrity Lounge 194-204 Pitt Street, Sydney, 5.30-6.30 pm.

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