A significant change in Australia’s family law system occurred in September 2021 when the Federal Circuit Court and the Family Court of Australia were joined to become the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (FCFCOA).
The new structure was introduced by the Federal government to try and reduce the bottlenecks in the family law process, resolving property and parenting disputes in a quicker, more efficient manner and encouraging dispute resolution before the need for a court trial at every opportunity.
To this end, a new case management pathway and harmonised procedural rules have been introduced as of September 2021, some of which we provide more detail on in this post about how the new court will handle property disputes between couples whose relationship has come to an end.
As in parenting matters, in an ideal world, a separating married or de facto couple save time, money and stress by coming to their own agreement on dividing property and debts from the relationship. When they can’t agree, the Court is called on to resolve the issue.
Within the new Court structure, the key change in property disputes is around disclosure of financial details between the parties prior to reaching the trial stage.
How the new case management pathway applies to property disputes
Applying to the Court for financial orders on the division of property and payment of spouse or de facto partner maintenance can occur 12 months after a divorce is finalised for married couples and within two years of the breakdown of a de facto relationship.
Under the new Court’s revised rules, the parties will be asked at their first court appearance whether they have undertaken a number of ‘genuine steps’, including undertaking dispute resolution and complying with ‘pre-action procedures’.
Further detail on these steps in applying for property orders includes:
- The requirement that all ‘pre-action procedures’ are exhausted prior to a party filing proceedings. These procedures include the applicant for the orders providing a written notice of intention to the other party to start a proceeding. The respondent is then required to respond.
- Once the parties are aware of the dispute, they must exchange relevant disclosure documents as soon as possible. This is a significant, time-saving change to the former procedure in the Federal Circuit Court, where the duty of disclosure did not start until after the parties had made a first appearance in Court.
- The parties’ legal representatives will be expected to promptly and thoroughly comply with pre-action procedures. The Court can make an order for legal costs against one party where a lawyer fails to comply with these procedures.
In property/financial cases, disclosure before any court proceeding includes each party providing to the other:
- a schedule of assets, income and liabilities;
- a list of documents in each parties` possession or control that are relevant to the dispute, such as tax returns, bank statements, property or motor vehicle valuation appraisals, inheritance or gift details, and company and trust financial statements; and
- a copy of any document required by the other party.
The other key requirement as part of case management is that the parties undertake at least one form of dispute resolution, such as mediation, before appearing in court.
This stage of the process may occur through private mediation, a conciliation conference or arbitration in property settlement cases.
The requirement for dispute resolution is not new in either property or parenting matters but will be more strictly enforced in the new Court structure, signified by the need for a party filing an application to start a proceeding, or a response to the application, to file a ‘Genuine Steps Certificate’.
The certificate outlines each party’s compliance with pre-action procedures and confirms their participation in dispute resolution.
Other changes in the new structure
People bringing a property dispute to the new FCFCOA will find that their initial interaction with the court will more often be with registrars and senior registrars.
The change is designed to help judges within the court more quickly and efficiently resolve matters that require priority.
On the announcement of the new court, it was suggested that after an application for orders the first court event will occur within 6-8 weeks, with mediation or dispute resolution to take place within six months of filing.
If the matter proceeds to trial, the aim is for it to proceed within 12 months of the initial application.
Is legal advice necessary?
When applying to the court for property orders – or for consent orders where the parties are asking the court to formalise a property agreement made between them – the parties do not necessarily need to be represented by a lawyer.
But family law is a complex area, particularly property matters where the Court considers an extensive range of factors before determining whether it should alter the division of property between the ex-couple. Valuations of property, the place of non-financial contributions to the relationship and the weight to be given to contributions as a homemaker or parent are all important aspects that benefit from the advice of a specialist family lawyer.
At Felicio Law Firm we have many years of experience in family law matters and can help you understand your rights and responsibilities, whether you wish to initiate an application for property orders, or are responding to one.
We will also help explain the new arrangements under the new Federal Circuit and Family Law Court and what they mean for an application for property settlement.
Contact us Erina & Central Coast family lawyers today.