Court system ‘better, even if underfunded.’

June 15th, 2012

BY: DEBBIE GUEST, The Australian
June 08, 2012

LONG delays in Western Australia’s Family Court cannot be blamed on the separation from other states, but is instead due to a lack of resources, lawyers say.

Family law specialists in the west say the system of a separately run court is the envy of other states and has many advantages.

The delays, which force warring couples to wait almost two years for a trial, have come under scrutiny and left the court’s chief judge, Stephen Thackray, calling for extra permanent judicial officers.

Chief Judge Thackray warned last week in The Australian that funding issues needed to be addressed to avoid his court falling into the red.

The federal Attorney-General, Nicola Roxon, has said the government is committed to a national family law system.

But the president of the Family Law Practitioners Association of WA, Rod Hooper, said that the separate model was the best in the country.

“The model we have in WA, absent the resourcing issue, is the envy of everybody else,” he told The Australian.

Mr Hooper said the Family Court of WA had developed some of the most innovative practices of any other state.

“It’s not that this is some little parochial, out-of-date court that needs to be patted on the head and shoved in a corner; it’s a court that’s been at the innovation forefront forever and still is,” he said.

Mr Hooper said all the commissioned reports and research had indicated that WA’s system was an appropriate and good model.

“The simple reason is this: in all of the other states, when you want information from state authorities, it’s a bit complicated to get it because you’ve got problems between state and federal departments. In the Family Court of WA, we’ve got an officer of the Department for Child Protection who works in the court, so if you want information and files it’s immediately shared. It is the same with state police.”

He said resourcing problems began in 2002 when the Labor government introduced legislation allowing de facto couples, including same-sex couples, to argue property disputes before the court.

“Since then the Family Court of WA has been starved of funds,” he said.

Chief Judge Thackray declined to comment on whether WA should continue to have a separate Family Court model, and said it was a matter for government.

He did tell The Australian that the court “greatly valued” the close and collaborative arrangements with Child Protection and family law providers, most of which were state-based.

“I think it is fair to say that the way we work with the local agencies is widely regarded as a good model,” Chief Judge Thackray said.

“In my experience it is important that those close working links are nurtured at the local level.”

Law Council of Australia family law section deputy chairman Rick O’Brien said that, structurally, the WA system was better.

“The only downside of WA maintaining a separate Family Court is the opportunity it affords governments to argue about who should fund it,” he said.

“The court, in my personal opinion, needs a permanent judicial roster of at least six judges and nine magistrates,” Mr O’Brien said.

The court at present has five judges and eight magistrates, one part-time. This does not include recent announcements by state and federal governments that have seen funding for a temporary magistrate, an acting magistrate and support staff.

WA Attorney-General Christian Porter said the delay in the Family Court was not due to how it operated and could be blamed on three judges becoming ill and the failure of the federal government to replace them quickly.

“If the state withdrew completely from the family court jurisdiction in WA, no state money of any type would flow to the family court and then the question arises: would West Australians be better off relying solely on the commonwealth government? And I would of thought on recent experience the answer is no,” Mr Porter said.