Federal Court put in charge of stretched Family Court system
- THE AUSTRALIAN
- DECEMBER 2, 2015
· Nicola Berkovic
Attorney-General George Brandis will today introduce a bill to parliament to put the Federal Court in charge of running the much larger Family and Federal Circuit courts, as delays and underfunding bring the family law system close to breaking point.
The Family and Federal Circuit courts have fought hard against the change, which would see the Family Court give up control of its administration for the first time in its 40-year history.
Family lawyers have labelled the change “bizarre”.
Senator Brandis last night vowed to return any savings to the courts and said that, after “extensive discussions” with the heads of jurisdiction, safeguards had been put in place to ensure each court had its own chief executive and a separate budget allocation.
“It’s a cost-saving measure that will streamline the operation of the relevant courts from an administrative point of view,” Senator Brandis told The Australian. He said the changes were expected to save $9.4 million over six years to 2021, and $5.4m a year after that.
The radical change to courts administration comes as Federal Circuit Court Chief Judge John Pascoe said he was considering ending hearings at some of the court’s busiest registries because its resources were “stretched to the limit and beyond”.
Chief Judge Pascoe said the court’s family law caseload was becoming increasingly complex, it was facing a “tsunami” of migration work, and the government had failed to replace judges as they retired.
“The general federal law work of the court is growing, the family law work is getting harder and we are not getting timely replacements,” he told The Australian at his Sydney chambers. “So the court really is just stretched to the limit and beyond.”
Chief Judge Pascoe warned the Turnbull government’s reforms would not solve the problems. “My own view is that anything that increases the efficiency of the courts is worthwhile but it won’t solve all of the resourcing issues,” he said.
The changes to courts administration follow a report by KPMG, handed to Senator Brandis more than 18 months ago, that revealed the three federal courts were on track for combined losses of $75m by 2017-18.
Chief Judge Pascoe said the resources of the Federal Circuit Court, which handles most family law cases, were stretched “everywhere” but the problems were particularly pronounced in NSW.
As revealed in The Australian this week, Chief Judge Pascoe told members of the Law Council’s Family Law Section in a telephone hook-up last Friday that he was “seriously considering” closing the Parramatta registry in Sydney’s west — one of the busiest in Australia — and the Wollongong registry, south of Sydney. Yesterday, he said he was looking at moving all of the judges who were based at Parramatta and Wollongong to the court’s Sydney registry, but there would still be a registry in those locations for litigants to file documents and access some services.
“In NSW next year, we will have half the number of judges in family law that we had,” he said.
“Under those circumstances … we have to try and use the resources we’ve got in the most efficient way possible.
“That’s why we’re giving consideration to moving all of the judges back into this building, so that we maximise the resources in this building.”
Chief Judge Pascoe said moving judges from Parramatta was “the last thing” he wanted to do but the court was “running out of options”.
Senator Brandis said the government would “shortly” appoint another three judges to bolster the court’s resources.
In Sydney, judges are already setting hearing dates for 2017 because their lists are so overloaded. One family law judge has not been replaced and two are set to stop hearing cases because they are due to retire.
In Parramatta, the court is down to three of its five judges. Of those, one will reduce his caseload next year because of health concerns and another, appointed by the Abbott government late last year, has limited family law experience and has come under fire from family lawyers.
Chief Judge Pascoe said the “ice epidemic” had made the family law workload in regional areas much more difficult.
The court is also bracing to receive many thousands of migration appeals next year from the government’s new fast-track assessment process for protection claims.
The Federal Court, which mainly handles disputes in areas such as corporate, taxation and bankruptcy law, is very different from the Family and Federal Circuit courts. Last year, the Federal Circuit Court handled 95,341 filings, with a fourfold increase in its migration work over four years, while the Family Court handled 20,397 filings. The Federal Court’s workload slumped 25 per cent over two years to just 4355 filings.