Failure to replace judges, surge in domestic violence cases straining Federal Circuit Court: lawyers/mobile.abc.net.au
The family law jurisdiction of the Federal Circuit Court of Australia is at breaking point, according to the legal profession, fuelled by a surge in domestic violence reporting and the ice scourge gripping regional areas.
Lawyers in New South Wales say it is the failure of the Federal Government to replace judges that is causing the strained system to implode in Wollongong, Sydney and Parramatta.
The Federal Circuit Court has confirmed it is considering moving judges that sit in Wollongong and Parramatta to Sydney.
“This is not something the court wants to do but retirements in Sydney and Parramatta have left the court with insufficient resources for an ever-increasing and more complex workload,” Chief Judge John Pascoe said.
A court spokeswoman said the Family Court and Circuit Court were also operating with $60 million less federal funding than they were seven years ago.
“As a result of a reduction in resources, the Federal Circuit Court of Australia has experienced significant difficulty in dealing with its workload in Sydney, Parramatta and Wollongong over the past 12 months and it now has to review how it can best utilise the judicial resources it currently has,” she said.
The judge currently assisting litigants in the Illawarra region almost on a full-time basis cannot remain based in Wollongong unless there are new appointments to the court to replace the judges who have retired, according to the Federal Court Circuit spokeswoman.
The statement confirms the move would most likely result in delays to hearing times for litigants.
In Parramatta, there are four judges but two are currently not sitting.
Sydney has six judges currently sitting in family law but two have stopped taking new cases pending their retirement in 2016 to allow them to clear their current backlogs.
Another Sydney judge is due to retire next year.
Brandis says further appointments will come soon
Federal Attorney-General George Brandis said the Government had “introduced legislation to implement a further budget measure to deliver efficiencies through the merging of corporate service functions of the Federal Court of Australia, Family Court of Australia and Federal Circuit Court of Australia”.
“This will save $9.4 million over six years to 2020-21,” Mr Brandis said.
“The Federal Circuit Court, which handles the lion’s share of family court matters, is served by 65 judges.”
Mr Brandis announced in October that an extra four Federal Circuit Court judges were to be appointed and said he would “soon announce a further two appointments bringing the court up to its full complement”.
He did not say where those judges would sit or when.
But so far it has taken five years for a young mother in Wollongong to have her property and custody case resolved in the Federal Circuit Court.
“It’s incredibly frustrating, you feel your life is on hold until you can get it resolved. There’s nothing you can do, you’re at the mercy of the courts,” said the woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons.
She added she had taken days off work for her court date.
“You wait and you show up and it’s, ‘I’m sorry we can’t see you today, we can’t fit you in’, and it’s not the next day or the next week, it’s months away,” she said.
“If you can avoid it, if you can sort the matter out, then given my experience, I suggest you do that.”
Retired judge critical of succession planning
There are currently more than 500 outstanding family law cases in Wollongong, which is the largest single judge registry in Australia.
The huge delays mean parents and children are now waiting to beyond 2017 for divorce, property and custody court hearing dates.
Family law solicitor Hayley Williams said the system was in gridlock and no longer functioning.
“I’m getting told we’ve got dates to be advised at the moment,” Ms Williams said.
“I’ve got clients all the way down the south coast, in the southern highlands.
“If hearing dates are not allocated they will end up taking matters into their own hands, possibly breaching orders, possibly not being able to seek remedies from the court.”
A recently retired Federal Court Circuit judge, Giles Coakes, has called on the Federal Government to make timely appointments.
“So that these delays don’t continue, so that families in crisis don’t have to face unreasonable and lengthy delays, particularly in Wollongong and Parramatta,” Mr Coakes said.
Mr Coakes said succession planning had been “not good at all, it’s no secret judges have to retire at 70,” he told the ABC.
“It’s just absolutely mystifying and inexcusable, the failure of the Government to make timely appointments to replace judges who’ve gone.”