The argument of this Article is that the width of discretion that trial judges have to alter property rights under the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) (‘the Act’) has been overstated. The property aspects of the Act can only be valid to the extent to which the law is an appropriate application of the marriage and divorce powers in the Constitution or is within the boundaries of the States’ reference of powers about de facto relationships. These constitutional provisions place significant constraints upon judicial discretion. In relation to marriages, the need to adjust property rights must result from the circumstances of the marital relationship or be justified as a consequence of the financial impact upon a party of its breakdown. The authority of Parliament to make laws concerning the alteration of the property rights of de facto partners is limited to cases of relationship breakdown.
Furthermore, the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia are both Chapter III courts. That has implications for the kind of discretion that Parliament can lawfully confer upon the trial judge, and the limits of that discretion. Some recent dicta and decisions of the Full Court of the Court suggest a view of judicial discretion which, it is argued, is inconsistent with the nature of judicial power in a Chapter III court. The discretion of trial judges is fettered by three duties: The duty to follow the interpretation of the Act as established authoritatively by appellate decisions, taking account of guidelines in appellate judgments; the duty to give reasons that explain the outcome of the case, and in particular, to justify the alteration of legal and equitable interests in specific items of property; and the duty to avoid arbitrary and capricious decision-making.
The current jurisprudence on family property law is not necessarily consistent with these constitutional limitations.