As anyone who has had dealings with the Family Court in recent years knows, the Family Court is in trouble.
Just how much trouble was clear to anyone who went along to the the National Family Law Conference in Melbourne, held last month. The conference is the major biannual gathering of family law solicitors, judges and experts in Australia, and the big topic on everyone’s lips was the crucial lack of funding for the Family Law courts.
When the first Chief Justice Elizabeth Evatt opened the doors of the Family Court on 5th January 1976, there was a great sense of optimism. The new court, along with its in-house counselling service, would resolve family disputes in an informal and friendly manner.
But since then, Family Law cases have become more complex and numerous. Meanwhile the federal government, bent on saving money, has steadily cut back on funding for the courts and judges, for example by delaying the appointment of new judges whenever a serving judge retires, so there are now fewer judges available to hear Family Law cases. As a result, the time people have to wait to go to court hearings has been increasing to the point where it now takes 2-4 years for people to get a final court hearing.
At the conference, the current Chief Justices of the Family, Federal Circuit and Western Australian Family Courts spoke about the state of their courts and difficulties and workload their judges are experiencing.
A consensus emerged that there is a need to have improved legal systems and procedures to help separated parties resolve disputes themselves outside the court system.
Still, things are much better than they used to be. Ita Buttrose spoke about the difficulties of divorce in the 1960s and how the growing aspirations of women played a big part in the development of Family Law. She contrasted the situation of her parents’ divorce in the sixties, which was plastered over the front pages of the evening newspapers, compared to the dignified and private divorce procedure she herself went through after the Family Court opened.
Nevertheless, family violence in family law situations, and how best to prevent it and protect victims, remains a constant challenge, the Conference heard.
ABC journalists Leigh Sales and Sarah Ferguson discussed how important is to for responsible journalists to report on important court cases and open the court and procedures to public scrutiny. But against this, there is always the need to protect family privacy and dignity, particularly for children.
There are many judges, lawyers and others trying very hard to make the system work efficiently. We do still have a very good Family Law court system. But it does need proper funding to be able to complete the work expected of it.