High cost of a cheaper law option

By Jason Koutsoukis
Political Correspondent
June 26, 2004

Prime Minister John Howard has received advice that the cost of establishing a new families tribunal to cheaply settle child custody disputes would top $600 million.

Despite the strong support of a small but vocal group of Federal Government backbenchers, the families tribunal now appears highly unlikely to be adopted before the election.

Senior cabinet ministers including Attorney-General Philip Ruddock are strongly opposed to the tribunal on the grounds that it would create another layer of legal bureaucracy on top of the Family Court and the federal magistracy.

Mr Ruddock is concerned that the tribunal could mirror the Refugee Review Tribunal, whose decisions are often appealed to higher courts.

Mr Howard also harbours strong concerns at the implications of establishing the tribunal, which would take over from the Family Court as the main arbiter of child custody disputes.

The new tribunal would try to reduce conflict and costs for separating couples by diminishing the role of lawyers.

Led by Nationals MP Kay Hull, backbenchers pushing the families tribunal were yesterday still lobbying senior cabinet ministers to support the idea.

The proposal to establish a families tribunal was the unanimous recommendation of a bipartisan parliamentary committee late last year.

One senior member of that committee, NSW Liberal MP Alan Cadman, yesterday told The Age he believed the Family Court should be abolished.

"That'll shake them up, those people in the Government who are opposing the tribunal," Mr Cadman said.

"The Family Court actually stands in the way, and there really is no obstacle to us abolishing the court and just replacing it with the families tribunal and the federal magistracy," he said.

"The existing cases could be taken over by the Federal Court, we could rename the Family Law Act to the Divorce Act and we wouldn't have all those lawyers mucking it up for families."

Mr Cadman said he did not believe abolishing the Family Court was a practical consideration in the current term but believed it should be taken up after the election.

Another strong supporter of the families tribunal, Victorian Liberal MP Chris Pearce, said that while he believed there were serious flaws in the Family Court, he did not want to confuse the issue by calling for its abolition.

"There is a great amount of goodwill in the Government to see if we can get the families tribunal up and running," Mr Pearce said.

Mr Howard was last asked about the issue late last month when he said the Government was still discussing the issue.