At a time when the Federal Government is being praised for taking steps to address the problem of family violence in this country, it is perplexing that the serious crisis in the family law court system is still not being addressed. In fact, it appears to be getting worse, with news now that some of Sydney’s busiest family law registries may soon be shut down.
The Australian newspaper is reporting that the Federal Circuit Court chief judge John Pascoe last week told members of the Law Council of Australia’s Family Law Section that, in an attempt to manage resources in cash-strapped registries, he was “seriously considering” closing the Parramatta registry in Sydney’s west and the Wollongong registry in Sydney’s south. As a result, people in the Parramatta and Wollongong areas—including the NSW Illawarra, the south coast regions, north and southwestern NSW—would be forced to access the Sydney registry of the Federal Circuit Court instead, exacerbating existing delays there and indeed raising concerns as to how the Sydney court buildings could even physically accommodate the extra caseloads.
The funding crisis and the lengthy court waiting times that affect so many Australians going through the family court system are widely acknowledged. In the past year, family law practitioners and judges have repeatedly called on the Government to step in to resolve the crisis, for example to ensure the timely appointment of judicial officers.
The Family Law Section yesterday called on federal Attorney-General George Brandis to commit to extra funding to ensure the continued operation of both court registries, warning that their closure would be “potentially calamitous”.
Unacceptable waiting times of more than three years for a trial date, or up to 18 months for interim hearings have been reported by families in disputes over children and property. There can be no doubt that these problems plaguing the court system influence the very vulnerable members of society that the Turnbull Government is pledging to help with the new measures and laws targeting family violence.
It is inexplicable that the Government continues to fail to address the serious underfunding of both the Federal Circuit Court and Family Court, given the obvious difficulties faced by families waiting to access justice, and the disastrous effect such waiting times can have on families already experiencing trauma.
However, clients have options to take control of their family law matter. If you and your ex-spouse or ex-partner are in any way able to resolve matters through the process of collaboration, then you can be in and out of the family law system as quickly as you are both able to gather information, book meetings with lawyers and sign up. If you are not quite so amicable, and still want a defended hearing, you have the option of going to arbitration. This is like a private family law hearing, with a privately paid arbitrator who makes an ‘award’ which is then converted into a court order by being lodged in court. The hearing can involve all the usual steps of drafting affidavits, instructing barristers to cross-examine your spouse in the witness box and a ‘judge’ to make a decision, but it is done quickly, privately and with the same binding effect as a court order. You can also pay a mediator to guide you through lawyer-assisted mediation.
If you have any questions about collaboration, negotiation or arbitration, then don’t hesitate to contact our friendly lawyers here at Alliance Family Law, Cristina Huesch (principal), Sharla Stevens or Angela Li.