Chief Justice Diana Bryant has called on the Government to increase funding for the Family Court, describing the underfunded system as letting down “vulnerable people caught up in the system”.
Newcastle: Court delays in action
To see the backlog in action, look no further than Newcastle’s Federal Circuit Court. The court is experiencing a 19-month backlog in dealing with family law matters after one of three judge positions was left vacant from February 2017. The two judges who remained are each responsible for about 770 matters – almost double the national average.
On 8 September, it appeared calls for assistance may have been heeded, with the Government announcing the appointment of Jane Costigan to the Newcastle Registry of the Federal Circuit of Australia.
The Family Court workload
The Family Court is a busy jurisdiction. In 2015-16 over 100,000 applications were filed in the Family Court system across family law issues including:
- separation and divorce
- parenting and custody disputes
- family and domestic violence
- missing children
- property and finance matters.
The average delay from filing to hearing is approximately 17 months, but some families have waited up to three years for their case to be heard.
Finding a balance for self-representation
In 2015-16, 44% of people involved in Family Court matters represented themselves. The increase of 5% from the previous year reflects the ongoing trend towards self-representation.
Self-representation is a right but can leave the system clogged with people without legal experience trying to run complex legal cases. Especially when emotions are running high around children, custody and divorce.
The Family Court recommends getting legal advice, but there’s no obligation to do so, and not everyone is eligible for legal assistance. Despite the costs of a legal representative, professional family law expertise is likely to help move their case forward and resolve it quicker than through self-representation.
Delays leading to settlements
The waiting times aren’t in keeping with the Court’s vision of putting children and families first and maintaining functional family relationships after separation; the backlog is not helping.
Backlogs in family law courts increase the likelihood some will choose to settle their case. Dispute resolution without judicial processes – including resolution of cases by agreement between the parties – is a fundamental element of family law. However, the need for closure to matters can encourage settlement in a case, and an outcome which isn’t in the best interests of children and families.
No resources to check compliance
When cases do make it through the system, a lack of resources means there’s no capacity to monitor compliance with orders made by the Court. Chief Justice Bryant remains concerned the Government “doesn’t understand the effect this is having on families”. Without enforcement of compliance, decisions of the court are rendered almost meaningless.
Fixing the faults
Chief Justice Bryant called on the Federal Government to boost court funding so more registrars and family consultants could ease the bottleneck.
The Government responded by announcing a $10.7 million package to engage more family consultants across the Federal Circuit Court of Australia, the Family Court of Australia and the Family Court of Western Australia.
It remains to be seen if this injection of funds for frontline services is enough to make a difference to the family law delays.
Resolving your family law matter
If you have a family law issue in the Family Court, your best chance of a speedy resolution in the best interests of your family is specialist family law expertise.