Cuts in Funding for Family Courts Create Dangerous Delays

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family-court-of-australiaCHILD welfare is being compromised and the safety of women put at risk because of unacceptable delays in the nation’s family law system, with courts in Sydney’s west reaching “crisis point”.

Desperate barristers took the extraordinary step of writing to Federal Circuit Court Chief Judge John Pascoe last month about the backlog of cases at Parramatta in western Sydney, when they learned a respected judge was to be moved to Melbourne. Senior solicitors and barristers say urgent matters involving child abuse and domestic violence are regularly being delayed for up to three months for interim hearings at Parramatta, and it is taking about 18 months to get final hearing dates.

Chief Judge John Pascoe said, in a letter obtained by The Australian, that the Federal Circuit Court was in a “difficult situation”, blaming cost-saving measures by the previous government.

The profession fears tomorrow’s federal budget will cut the courts’ resources even further because the Coalition went to the election promising to save $30 million by “streamlining” Family Court processes.

The chairman of the Law Council’s family law section, Rick O’Brien, said similar problems were being felt across Australia.

He said it was understood another nine judges were needed nationally for the Federal Circuit Court, which handles about 90 per cent of family law matters, to meet its current workload.

In one case The Australian has learned about, a father, who had not spent time with his five-year- old daughter since January 2013 because his ex-partner had been denying him access, was told in December that a date was not available for 18 months for a hearing about the mother’s contravention of interim parenting orders.

The Parramatta-based judge said this meant he could not provide the parties with a date at all, because his calendar did not extend beyond 18 months. The case has been in the system since 2010, when the girl was two.

In a letter copied to Attorney-General George Brandis, the head of Parramatta’s Arthur Phillip Chambers, David Maddox, wrote to Chief Judge John Pascoe on March 20, after learning of the imminent departure of judge Joanne Stewart.

“In the event that there is no replacement (for Judge Joanne Stewart), our members do not understand how the registry can continue to operate without lengthening ­delays, particularly for final hearings,” he wrote on behalf of other Parramatta barristers.

“As it is, there can be a delay of 18 months or more from first ­filing to final hearing … even if there are no interlocutory steps which inevitably delay the matter.”

Chief Judge John Pascoe replied on March 25: “Unfortunately, at this stage there is no replacement for Judge Stewart … the court is in a very difficult position in relation to judicial resources. As a cost-saving measure, the previous government did not make a number of replacement/­additional appointments to the court, despite an increasing workload.” Barrister Michael Kearney SC said the Parramatta registry of the Federal Circuit Court was at a “crisis point”.

“If a client comes to see me today they are two to three years away from a resolution, and that’s if everything goes according to plan. Some are four or five years in the waiting,” he said.

Barrister Paul Sansom said there was a “significant” risk of children being harmed or women being subjected to violence because of the delays. “There is potential also for significant frustration and damage to relationships between children and their estranged parents,” he said.

Family lawyer Jacqueline Kyle, from Smythe Wozniak, said she feared she would one day have a client killed because of undue delays in resolving their disputes. “You don’t get a second chance with children,” she said.

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