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Brandis blamed for inexcusable family court delays

By August 8, 2017No Comments

By Gianna Huesch

Court delays: Attorney-General George Brandis is being directly blamed for a “scandalous” situation where the Federal Circuit Court in Newcastle is struggling to cope with regional caseloads and families are being forced to suffer intolerable delays in having their matters heard at court.

Having seconded one of the three judges in the Newcastle registry to lead an Australian Law Reform Commission inquiry, Mr Brandis has left that judge’s position vacant for five months now, leaving the two remaining Newcastle judges responsible for approximately 770 matters each, double the national average.

The Opposition says “Mr Brandis created the situation in Newcastle by appointing [Justice Myers] to lead the ALRC’s inquiry. Having done that, he can’t say ‘this is an unexpected retirement’. The Attorney General has known about this all year. Those two [remaining] judges are massively overworked.”

The disastrous situation for families has left the Turnbull Government open to accusations of delivering “mixed messages on domestic violence”. On the one hand, the Government has recently announced many positive changes in the family law arena. But on the other hand, vulnerable families have had to continue to put up with shocking delays—the average being 19 months to reach trial–and meanwhile, the community continues to lose faith in the family court system.

Newcastle MP Sharon Claydon said the delays were affecting vulnerable families who were dealing with complex issues such as marriage break-downs, child custody disputes, drug and substance abuse issues. “It’s a dangerous holding pattern for some of these families to be in.”

One case cited as an example refers to a father with mental health and drug issues who had ‘run off’ with a child. An urgent hearing was sought but took two months to reach the court.

“In the meantime a little girl who doesn’t know her father has effectively been kidnapped, for want of a better word, and the court is unable to deal with that because of a lack of resources.”

Not only are the delays “pushing families to the brink”, but there could be a disastrous impact on the quality of eventual judicial decision-making. Retired Newcastle Federal Circuit Court judge Mr Coakes has added to the criticisms of politicians and practitioners, describing the “dangerous implications” of judges being forced to shoulder such hefty workloads:

“It means there is the increased risk of an oversight, a mistake in calculations, or risk of not giving enough weight to a specific piece of evidence. All of those things stem from hurrying, which comes from the pressure to produce a result.  It’s awful, quite frankly, and I’m surprised there hasn’t been mental breakdowns.”

A spokeswoman for Mr Brandis said a permanent appointment was “under active consideration”.

“The appointment of a judge to a court is an important decision to which the Attorney General gives careful consideration, giving regard to a broad range of issues, including the expertise and background of potential candidates as well as consultation with relevant persons,” she said.

However Mr Coakes, who describes Mr Brandis as “reckless” and “negligent” for allowing the delay to occur, says: “It simply doesn’t need to take this long”.  

It is truly difficult to understand how the appointment is not being treated with extreme urgency when people’s mental health, and even lives, are clearly at stake.

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If you require family law advice, please contact Canberra family lawyer Cristina Huesch or one of our other experienced solicitors here at Alliance Family Law on (02) 6223 2400.

Please note our blogs are not legal advice. For information on how to obtain the correct legal advice, please contact us to arrange a free first conference.


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