WA Family Court backlog sparks fears of two-year wait for trials, calls for more judges

March 29th, 2017

By Rebecca Trigger

The WA Family Law court is grappling with an “unprecedented” increased workload, with wait times for trials expected to blow out to two years and the chief judge calling on the Government to provide additional resources.

An acting judge who was employed to deal with the existing backlog can no longer take up the role because of health concerns.

Meanwhile, the court’s chief judge will no longer be available for trials in Perth, as he moves full time to a federal family court role, leaving just four full-time judges for the court.

In a letter to the Family Law Practitioners’ Association, seen by the ABC, chief judge Stephen Thackray warns the court is facing a backlog of cases stretching into next year and this will create a “serious problem” for the court.

“The pressures created by this unexpected turn of events will be exacerbated by other significant listing changes that have become necessary in the first half of 2017, some of which will affect trials already listed in January and February,” he writes.

Judge Thackray will increase his workload as senior judge in the Appeal Division of the federal Family Court from March, which he said meant he would no longer be available for trials in Perth.

He said he was talking to the state Attorney-General to try to find a solution. Temporary appointments ‘band aid on a festering sore’

Family Law Practitioners’ Association president Michael Berry SC said temporary appointments needed to be replaced by permanent, full-time judicial officers.

“In the past we have had a number of acting positions, we have had acting registrars, acting magistrates, acting judges,” he said.

“This is an unstated acknowledgement by Government that the resources are needed, but Government is putting a band aid on a festering sore.”

He also warned families would suffer if the delays were not addressed.

When these relationships break down, it is essential that government provides adequate resources for people to have their disputes resolved.”

According to last year’s annual report, the average wait time for a trial is already more than a year and a half.

Mr Berry said this could blow out to two years.

A spokeswoman for Attorney-General Michael Mischin said he had asked the Federal Government for more money to appoint another permanent judge to the Family Court.

The Federal Attorney-General has been approached for comment.

Families ‘need security, certainty’

Community Legal Centres executive director Helen Creed said any increased strain on an already overloaded system would cause distress for vulnerable families.

“The reason they are going into the family court is to try and put some safety into their lives, either to try and get a situation where they are safe in their own home, or their children are protected,” she said.

“So any delay in that is just going to add more and more pressure, more and more stress, for what is already already a stressful situation for them.”

Community Legal Centres Association deputy chairwoman Carrie Hannington said many of the cases going through the family court involved domestic violence issues.

“The Family Court process is highly stressful psychologically and emotionally under any circumstances, and there is a need for expedient settlement of matters,” she said.

“The presence of violence and the need to find solutions to matters that arise from it — including safety issues — greatly increase the stress factor and need for expediency.”

She said expected delays, combined with an already under-resourced community legal sector, which will this year face more funding cuts, meant disadvantaged clients would only be put at further disadvantage.

Western Australia is the only state to have its own family law court.

If you have any questions relating to the above article please contact Bloxham Legal at info@bloxhamlegal.com.au or 9221 5815.