Urgent need for safer family court facilities
The safety of people going through the family court system is being questioned in numerous regions in Australia, as caseloads increase but physical locations have not been overhauled to cope with the influx.
As the family courts and federal circuit courts hearing family law matters continue to be overloaded with matters, not only is the case backlog and waiting times getting worse, but there are serious concerns that victims of family violence including children are being put at risk through inadequate facilities, some 150 years old.
There have been widespread calls for increased government funding to be injected into the chronically underfunded court system, but these calls have been largely ignored by successive governments.
After police were called to a recent violence incident at the Wollongong registry, stakeholders have stepped up the call for an urgent overhaul of facilities.
Wollongong’s Burelli Street federal circuit court hears complex family law cases covering the Illawarra and South Coast region, and the caseload is so great that families there can wait two and a half years for their matters to be resolved. Worse, however, is the fact that there is only one courtroom, forcing victims of family violence to sit with their alleged abuser in a clearly unpalatable situation. While the court does have a “safe room”, this has to be spread across up to 40 cases a day being heard (Wollongong currently has 620 active cases “not including run-of-the-mill divorces”).
Courts also have some security measures in place, but the fear is that it’s no longer enough to keep families safe.
Having just one courtroom puts both clients and practitioners at risk, due to the incredibly tense environment that can result. Not only are family violence victims forced to wait in the same room as their alleged abusers, but sometimes new partners attend as well, adding to the tension. Further, as most matters in these courts deal with parenting disputes, kids are often present as they may need to see family consultants and so on. With no screens and no protection from alleged abusers, this is a terrible environment for children. They have to suffer the lack of privacy, any arguing and tension, and may be in genuine physical danger.
The Wollongong Law Society says it is imperative that kids are kept separate and away from the general public. President Lorelle Longbottom says:
“[The federal government is] putting money into activities – like this merger – when they should be doing other things, like looking at the basic facilities,” Ms Longbottom said. “We need more money for facilities, more judges and more family consultant time.”
And there is a similar situation in the Camden and Picton courts, where the security is very basic. Courthouses in this region are very outdated and facilities not suited to keeping family violence victims safe during the court process. Camden Court sits just twice a month, making it very hard to catch up on the backlog of cases, but aside from the long waits, the problem is that victims have to wait with their alleged abusers in the same place.
Family law reform should be dealing with these basic, solvable problems, to ensure the safety not only of victims of family violence, but also the legal practitioners working on the matters.
Solutions have been put forward, such as by the members of the Macarthur Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service, who have backed a campaign for the construction of a multi-jurisdictional justice precinct to serve southwest Sydney. Such a precinct “would bring together local courts, district courts, family court, emergency services and more in one place [and] would have a massive impact”. Such a precinct is “desperately needed”, they say.
It remains to be seen what the federal government will do about these issues relating to courthouse safety and improvements to facilities, but based on the lack of poliltical action thus far, things are not looking hopeful…
If you need assistance with a family law matter involving family violence, please contact Canberra family lawyer Cristina Huesch or one of our other experienced solicitors here at Alliance Legal Services on (02) 6223 2400.
Please note our blogs are not legal advice. For information on how to obtain the correct legal advice, please contact Alliance Legal Services.
You may also like to read our blog on myths about family violence and child custody.