There is an article in today’s edition of The Australian written by Nicola Berkovic, which claims that Chief Judge John Pascoe of the Federal Circuit Court is ‘seriously considering’ closing the court’s Parramatta and Wollongong registries (‘Threat of family law registry closures’, The Australian, p5). Understandably, this has caused deep concern among practitioners, court staff and litigants.
I have sought, and received, an urgent clarification from the Federal Circuit Court. During a recent teleconference with the Law Council’s Family Law Section, Chief Judge Pascoe raised the possibility that Federal Circuit Court judges might need to be transferred from Parramatta to the Lionel Bowen Building in Sydney, where they would be needed to cover a number of pending retirements.
Federal Circuit Court registry staff were assured this morning that there are no plans to shut down court registries.
That said, a key point made by The Australian article and some subsequent commentary deserves reiteration. The Federal Government cannot ignore the widening gap between the crushing caseload of the Federal Circuit Court and the number of available judges who can hear them. It is an urgent matter that needs to be dealt with – it will not go away but will worsen if steps are not taken to deal with the issue.
In 2014-15 more than 95,300 cases were litigated and divorce cases processed in the Federal Circuit Court. More than 83,000 family law filings were finalised. The number of appeals filed increased from 179 to 216 (an increase of 21 per cent). However, during 2014-15, nine Federal Circuit Court judges retired and not all of them have been replaced. One judge who retired from the Adelaide registry more than a year ago has onlyrecently been replaced. The Parramatta Registry’s operating strength has reduced from a full complement of five judges to just three, one of whom is on long leave.
Recent experience at the Newcastle Registry of the Federal Circuit Court demonstrated how quickly court lists can become unmanageable if the Court is not resourced properly. In that Registry, Federal Circuit Court Judge Giles Coakes retired on 30 June 2015, but was not replaced until November by Judge Steven Middleton. During that time, family law disputes still needed resolution and there were significant delays which could have only caused anguish for families caught up in such cases. The family law system exists to minimise the potential for family disputes to cause anguish or result in serious harm to all family members.
The Federal Government rightly attracted widespread praise when it invested $100m to tackle the urgent problem of domestic violence which it correctly identified as an important and critical issue. The issue of delays in family law disputes being resolved by the Courts is equally critical and important . The NSW Bar calls upon the Federal Government to take immediate steps to secure adequate judicial resources for the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court benches in NSW and throughout Australia.