The Family Court is the part of the judicial system most likely to have a significant impact on the lives of many Australians, especially children. Only two years ago, the Court’s workload was increased by giving it responsibility for de facto couples as well.
In advance of the recent Federal budget, it was feared that both the Family Court and Family Relationship Centres would experience funding cuts. While those cuts have not been made, despite the Court’s increased workload and the significance of the Family Court to the welfare of Australian families, Family Court judges are retiring and not being replaced.
Furthermore, the Sydney Registry of the Family Court has recently announced a new system whereby it will allocate only one judge on seven days per month to hear urgent applications. Apparently, the Court will list only six urgent cases on each of those seven days. In other words, in Sydney the Family Court only has capacity to deal with a maximum of 42 urgent applications each month. My experience suggests there would be considerably more than 42 people wanting to have urgent issues decided in the Family Court in Sydney each month.
The impact of these changes is already being felt by the people in the system who are going through the emotional stress of relationship breakdown. Cases that the court says should take 12 months to finish, now take 18 months to two years or more. During that time, the separated couple cannot get on with their lives, their children do not know where they will be living, and legal costs keep mounting. Issues that clients and their lawyers think are urgent (like a dad who is not seeing his children) used to have an interim hearing within a matter of weeks. Now we might not get a date in court for three months, perhaps more.
A friend of mine is currently stuck in the Family Court system. His wife left, taking the children to rural NSW. Despite having seen his children only once or twice in the last six months or so, he has still not had an interim hearing about whether and when he can spend time with his daughters.
Can that really be called justice?
Proposed changes to the definition of family violence in the Family Law Act are likely to place increased pressure on the already overburdened Family Court system. My expectation is that those changes will result in more litigation and litigation becoming even more emotionally-charged.
While it is certainly the case that all relevant information should be before the court so the court can make the best decision possible, it is not the absence of information that is causing delays. It is the chronic underfunding and increasing workload of an already overburdened Family Court system. For all its talk about caring for “working families”, one is entitled to question the Federal Government’s priorities.
What is the solution? In many cases, the solution is some form of alternate dispute resolution. At Armstrong Legal we consider the suitability of a range of settlement options in every client’s case. Many of our lawyers are trained in collaborative law (we all will be by the end of 2011). In other cases, mediation or settlement conferences resolve the couple’s issues.
However, settlement is not an option in every case – cases where a party is spending all the family’s assets; cases where a parent has moved interstate with children; cases where there is an urgent need for financial support; cases where one parent is not allowing the other to spend time with children, to name just a few. These are situations that require the court’s intervention, usually urgently. What does the Federal Government propose is a just solution for those people?