Some of Wollongong’s most vulnerable families have been left in limbo for years by a dysfunctional family court system, according to the region’s law society.
Illawarra lawyers have highlighted a massive backlog in the Federal Circuit Court – which hears some of the most serious family court cases involving domestic violence, child abuse, custody, paternity and mental health issues.
They say chronic understaffing, an unofficial hiring freeze on replacing retiring judges and a lack of funding has left their clients waiting years to have their cases resolved.
The Wollongong and District Law Society’s family law chairwoman Lorelle Longbottom said Wollongong’s Federal Circuit Court was serviced by just one judge, who was also appointed to Sydney’s court and only heard matters in Wollongong 75 per cent of the time.
At present he had 500 individual matters waiting to be heard, Ms Longbottom said.
Hansons family law solicitor Hayley Williams said this huge backlog meant some of her clients had been forced to put their lives on hold for years. In one instance, a client has been waiting since July 2013 for a judgment in her case.
‘‘That client has privately funded her legal costs, and waiting almost two years for a judgment has significantly impacted upon my client financially and emotionally,’’ she said.
Ms Williams noted only the ‘‘worst of the worst’’ matters came before the Federal Circuit Court, meaning families and children were often left in damaging situations while waiting for the cases to be resolved.
‘‘If you’re in the Federal Circuit Court for a final hearing, you can’t resolve your case,’’ Ms Williams said.
‘‘You’ve tried, you’ve been through mediation and dispute resolution conferences and this is your only remaining option.
‘‘It is not an easy task for our judiciary and the delays just make things worse.”
Ms Longbottom said she was most concerned about the effect the delays were having on children.
‘‘The biggest human cost is to children, who are experiencing their parents having a relationship breakdown,’’ she said.
‘‘They are caught in the middle, so the biggest concern for me is that children have to live in an environment of uncertainty and conflict.
‘‘This has a hugely detrimental effect in the short term, but also in the longer term, and often this is happening to very young children who are in the crucial years for their development.’’
Both solicitors said severe underfunding of the family court system meant the chronic backlog of cases stretched across the state, and believed an ‘‘unofficial employment freeze’’ had been instituted for judges and administrative staff at the court registries.
They joined the NSW Law Society in welcoming news from the recent federal budget that $22.5 million would be spent to improve services in the family court system, but Ms Longbottom said it was important this money went to the right places.
‘‘That funding needs to go to appointing new judges, so that the judges we do have are not dealing with dockets of 500 matters – and ideally we need a judge allocated to Wollongong’s registry,’’ she said.
‘‘And it also needs to go towards appointing staff to manage the registries and have documents filed in a timely matter so that we’re addressing the delays right from the start.
‘‘The budget is a signal that family law has come in to the picture a little bit, because traditionally it hasn’t been a priority in terms of funding.
‘‘Hopefully this is a sign of a shift because with people like Rosie Batty, family violence has been given a lot more attention, and hopefully that feeds through to the family court system.’’
The Mercury contacted the Federal Attorney-General’s department for comment on this story, but received no response.