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The Family Court - A System in Crisis

The Family Court - A System in Crisis

One of the most frequently asked questions by people who have ever filed anything at the Family Court is ‘what’s the hold up?’.

The Family Court process is a slow one, and there are delays across the board - from the ‘simpler’ matters such as divorces, to litigated matters that are heading towards a trial. Divorce hearings currently have a wait-time of about three months. Similarly, it is not uncommon for litigated matters to run for 18 months to 2 years before the trial itself. Tack on another 6 months for the decision to be handed down once the trial has been completed, and you can understand the frustration, with people often feeling like their lives are ‘on hold’ pending the final outcome.

So, what’s the hold up?

Basically, the Family Court of Western Australia is under resourced, and understaffed. To put things into perspective, there are currently 5 Judges presiding over matters in the Family Court here in Western Australia. This is the same number of Judges that the Court had in 1977. Conversely, our population over this period has more than doubled, increasing from approximately 1,204,366 to an estimated 2,598,200 as at September 2015.

This problem is nothing new, nor is it confined to Western Australia; New South Wales in particular is at breaking point. Between 2008 and 2016, the number of Judges in the Family Court and Federal Magistrates Court in Parramatta, which both hear Family Law matters, has halved. As a result, families are having to wait up to 3 years to have their disputes heard at trial. Worse still, a Wollongong family was forced to travel to Brisbane for a Trial earlier this year because the Wollongong Circuit Court simply did not have the capacity to hear the urgent matter.

Some of those most seriously affected by these delays are our most vulnerable. In cases that are characterised by family violence and abuse, protracted litigation ultimately results in increased risks for victims of abuse. For some, the damage done by this exposure is irreparable. At a time where domestic violence and child sex abuse are at the forefront of public discourse, it is inconceivable that the Government has not adequately addressed the issue of sufficient funding and resources for our Family Courts.

The legal profession has been pleading with successive Governments to address the problem of inadequate funding to our Family Courts for years, but these pleas have ostensibly fallen on deaf ears. The Chief Judge of the Family Court of Western Australia could not have been more concise in his letter to Parliament of July 2008 where he states ‘the Court’s workload is currently more that the existing resources are able to service’.

It is about time the Government reassessed its commitment to the places where decisions are made every day which directly affect our families, and our communities. If you ever find yourself in the unfortunate predicament of being subjected to protracted Family Court proceedings, please do not direct your grievances to our Courts. Direct them to your Local Member, and ask them, ‘what’s the hold up?’.

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Monday, 16 May 2022