Attorney General shouldn't ignore the illawarra

The Federal Circuit Court of Australia was established to provide a simple and accessible form of justice as an alternative to the federal and other superior courts and the Family Court to provide speedier access to justice particularly for people who live outside the capital cities.

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It is staffed by hardworking men and women who deal with litigants sometimes in the worst crises of their lives. I make absolutely no criticism of the staff or the judges, but right now the system is failing in Wollongong.

The court has access to one judge who travels from Sydney to sit three out of every four weeks in Wollongong. He also hears matters in Sydney on the fourth week of his schedule. The Wollongong family law docket has in excess of 590 matters, not including divorce matters. It takes three to four years for a case to be resolved through the Wollongong registry of the Federal Circuit Court system. It is clearly unacceptable. At the end of December 2014, there were 467 matters on the docket. That is an increase of 20 per cent in 12 months alone, with no changes in resources being allocated. If somebody asks for an interim hearing in the Wollongong registry today, they will not get a slot until the final week of May, and there will not be any final hearings available until 2018. That is two years away.

Hundreds of local families are being let down by the Attorney-General and this government and his administration of the justice system in Wollongong. For two years, the Attorney-General has allowed the lists to grow and has failed to appoint new judges when vacancies occur. His intervention during Senate estimates hearings a few days ago was nothing short of extraordinary. Instead of allocating additional resources, he bumbled into an announcement, only to be grilled by Labor senators. He said that additional resources would be allocated to the Wollongong registry, but we are still not clear about how. It was particularly surprising since only a few days earlier the member for Cunningham, the member for Gilmore and I had written to him asking for more resources to be allocated, and we had received a response saying that any such decision would not be made by him. Even during his comments during the Senate estimates hearing, the Attorney used weasel words to avoid being pinned down on the detail of when and how often additional judges will be available. He did confirm that there will not be a resident judge situated in Wollongong.

It is a sad fact that over 41 per cent of contested family law matters before the Federal Circuit Court involve domestic violence. Parents and children are waiting for three to four years before their settlements can be dealt with. That is three to four years living in limbo. The message to the government is: you are the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General for the entirety of Australia and not just part of it.