By NICOLA BERKOVIC
FAMILIES in regional and remote areas are waiting up to two years to resolve complex parenting disputes and putting children at risk of harm because the family law system is under-resourced.
Slater and Gordon head of family law Heather McKinnon said in the northern NSW Coffs Harbour region, where she was based, waiting times for court dates had blown out to some of the worst she had seen in her career.
She said the Federal Circuit Court was due to sit in Coffs Harbour next month and would then allocate final hearing dates to cases that had been in the system for about a year, likely for the second quarter of next year. Ms McKinnon said judges travelled to regional areas from the major cities but, with long waiting times there too, the court had to “weigh up where they plug the holes”.
She said the delays were putting women and children at risk of domestic violence.
“The problem is, while ever the court process is on foot, the conflict is at its highest,” she said.
“Many of these people don’t have good coping skills anyway, and their capacity to maintain order gets compromised because they’re having to hang on.”
Ms McKinnon said as legal aid funding and court resources became more stretched, parents were making decisions not in the best interests of children.
She said she met this week with a 23-year-old mother of two who separated from her partner 10 months ago. The parents had attended a Legal Aid mediation but the mother was unrepresented and had agreed to her toddlers, now aged 3 and 18 months, staying with her four nights one week and three nights the next.
She said the children were showing worrying symptoms of distress, including waking at night and problems with toilet-training.
Leading child psychiatrist Antony Milch said when very young children were placed in inappropriate care arrangements they risked being unable to form proper attachments with a primary figure.
He said research had shown that disruptions to young children could impact long-term on their ability to form healthy relationships and make them more susceptible to mental health problems.
The chairman of the Law Council’s family law section, Rick O’Brien, said there were simply not enough judges in the Federal Circuit Court, which handles the majority of family law matters, to service regional areas.
“There is no doubting the court’s commitment to servicing regional Australia, it just doesn’t have enough bodies to do it,” he said. Perth-based Mr O’Brien said similar issues were being experienced in many regional areas.
For example, he said parents in the Pilbara region, who were often struggling with very complex family disputes, were forced to travel to courts in Geraldton or Perth.
Since 2008, the Family Court, which handles only the most complex family law cases and appeals, has stopped holding regular hearings in regional areas.
Family lawyer Jenny Cook, based in Lismore, said many regional families simply could not afford to travel to access the Family Court — and to pay their lawyers to join them.
She said those using courts across borders also faced difficulties accessing Legal Aid, which was state-based.