Life on hold as court stalls

Diana* has been pursuing parenting orders in the Federal Circuit Court since July, 2010 (*not her real name). Picture: Adam McLean

Diana* has been pursuing parenting orders in the Federal Circuit Court since July, 2010 (*not her real name). Picture: Adam McLean

A Wollongong mum has described her excruciating five-year battle for a result in the city’s overburdened and “broken” family law registry. 

Diana* has spent more than $100,000 pursuing a parenting and property dispute through the Federal Circuit Court.

She began the action in July, 2010.

It was mid-2013 before the hearing concluded, and another two years before a judgement was handed down, in July, 2015. 

The judge’s orders were in her favour, but were short-lived. Her former partner soon filed an appeal, and the matter remains with the court. 

Diana told the Mercury she considered herself naive for having begun the action, and often wished she had never sought a legal resolution.

“I just thought: ‘this is path you need to go down to have the situation resolved',” she said.

“But it’s become the problem - the big problem – bigger than the problem I had.

“The [cost] is deflating. You’re just getting slugged all the time and I could be using that money elsewhere, for the kids.

“People go off the rails [pursuing orders] – they snap. You can understand why. 

“I feel trapped.” 

This week chief judge John Pascoe confirmed the Federal Circuit Court was considering removing Wollongong’s sitting judge for all but six-to-eight weeks of the year.

The move – certain to increase waiting times – is aimed at filling a manpower shortage in the Sydney courts.

Many in the profession blame government inertia for leeching the court of funding and – through an unofficial hiring freeze for replacing retiring judges – manpower. 

This week the government introduced legislation to merge the services arms of the Federal Court of Australia, Family Court of Australia and Federal Circuit Court of Australia, in a bid to recoup $9.4 million over six years, then $5.4 million annually after that. 

Attorney General George Brandis vowed to “soon” announce two new appointments, and claimed this would return the court to its full complement of 65 judges. 

But the Wollongong and District Law Society’s Lorelle Longbottom says the system has been operating under a backlog for too long, and greater resources are required.

“Because of the added strain that’s been placed on the registries, even if [the government] was to appoint judges to fill those positions left vacant, there’s a surplus of work that needs to be processed,” said Ms Longbottom, the society’s family law chairwoman.

"We actually need to see additional appointments made to completely remedy the dysfunction we have at the moment.

“The view shared by many of my colleagues is that [as long as] there is a massive gap in funding, there is going to be a realistic threat to our registry.”

Wollongong family law solicitor Hayley Williams estimates 80 per cent of her clients’ costs, in some cases, are the direct result of delays beyond their control.

Property valuations and expensive psychiatric reports needed updating as cases dragged on, and lawyer and barrister fees piled up with repeated adjournments brought on by case backlogs.

Ms Williams’ more fortunate clients have their own homes to live in, but people with property tied up in their disputes could be forced into desperate situations. 

“They've got to use heir own resources and possibly live with their parents. We’ve got clients living in refuges or with their elderly parents in a two-bedroom house – with their kids,” Ms Williams said.

“Circumstances change … then we’ve got to file further papers. The whole system is just broken.” 

The Federal Circuit Court deals with a large number of matters complicated by family violence, admissions to mental health units and drug use.

Even in very urgent cases, people waited weeks for a court date, Ms Williams said. 

“It keeps me awake at night knowing that there are hundreds of families waiting for urgent court days,” she said. 

“(Although) the children are at risk, there’s nothing we can do about it.”

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