By Faye Wheeler
Parents locked in child custody disputes will wait at least 13 months to have a hearing in a court system at Dubbo which is “choked” and “simply under-resourced”, warns a legal practitioner.
Orana Law Society president Andrew Boog yesterday called for a Federal Circuit Court judge to be based at Dubbo as a solution to waiting times for family law matters in the city, which he said had increased in the past six months.
He said a lack of new appointments for retiring judges, which saves money, was partly to blame – and Fairfax Media recently revealed almost one-fifth of the circuit court’s 65 judges are set to retire in the next 12 months.
An Attorney-General’s Department spokesman said yesterday the government was committed to ensuring federal courts had the resources they needed to provide access to justice, and help families and other litigants resolved their disputes with a minimum of delay.
Mr Boog’s concerns about increasing delays echoed those of Federal Circuit Court Chief Judge John Pascoe, the Law Council and family lawyers who said courts across Australia were struggling to keep up with their caseloads.
The circuit court, which works in tandem with the Family Court and deals with more than 80,000 divorces and custody matters a year, supplies services to Dubbo.
While urgent matters from Dubbo could be dealt with quickly – in metropolitan courts – lists were otherwise growing, Mr Boog said.
“At the moment, if you want to commence family law proceedings, don’t even dream about having a hearing in 2015,” he said.
He said the results of delays were far-reaching because it involved “people’s lives, intimate parts of their lives and kids.”
“I can’t think of a much better way to screw up the next generation,” he said.
Parents could be disputing which school their child attended, where the child lived and who else was in the household, what medical treatment a child should and should not receive and what names they would be using, he said.
“And we’re saying we’re not interested enough as a nation to help resolve these problems,” he said.
Mr Boog said he understood the need to “economise” but urged the government to consider children’s futures.
He said Orana Law Society had made representations to the government for a circuit court judge to be based at Dubbo, which could then serve western NSW from Bathurst to Cobar.
“AT THE MOMENT, IF YOU WANT TO COMMENCE FAMILY LAW PROCEEDINGS, DON’T EVEN DREAM ABOUT HAVING A HEARING IN 2015,”- ORANA LAW SOCIETY PRESIDENT ANDREW BOOG
“Unfortunately right across Australia families have been unstable and Dubbo has its share of that,” he said.
A Dubbo-based judge would provide more timely justice, easier access, reduced expense for all parties and the court and it would help lighten the load of already-stretched criminal courts, he said.
“The added cost of maintaining the judge would not be as great because the infrastructure and staffing is already here at Dubbo, which has a family law court that is nowhere near fully utilised,” he said.
He said unlike other courts the Federal Circuit Court and Family Court were resourced for mediation, after which there was “a reasonable chance the parties may talk to each other”.
The Daily Liberal asked Attorney-General George Brandis if a delay of more than 13 months was acceptable, and the inquiry was referred to the Attorney-General’s department.
A department spokesman said some matters were intrinsically more complex, and therefore were likely to take longer to reach finalisation.
He cited the 2013-14 Federal Circuit Court annual report, which said 82 per cent of applications were finalised within six months and 94 per cent were finalised within 12 months.
“The Chief Judge of the Federal Circuit Court is responsible for allocating the court’s resources appropriately to meet the workloads in different registries,” he said.
“The government is committed to ensuring that federal courts have the resources they need to provide access to justice, and help families and other litigants resolve their disputes with a minimum of delay.
“In the current economic climate all areas of government, including the courts, must look for ways to work more efficiently and effectively.
“The Attorney-General is carefully considering all available options for any administrative and structural reform to address long-term financial sustainability of the federal courts.
” The KPMG review of federal courts’ performance and funding, commissioned in early 2014, will help inform the government’s consideration.”