As if a family breakdown was not hard enough. By its very nature, it’s often a time of intense turmoil and trauma accompanied by an inability to reach an equitable settlement and, when children are involved, come to an acceptable custody and access arrangement.
Warring couples caught up in separation and divorce often have to turn to the Family Court because they are unable to reach agreements through mediation.
But when the Family Court is not equipped to deal with an ever-mounting case load, the delays very often add a whole new dimension of torment to an already uncertain, disruptive and debilitating set of circumstances.
The shortages of judges and the lack of sitting days on the South Coast has been a discussion point among local lawyers for some time now. We’re told of clients being advised to have their cases heard in the ACT or even interstate because there aren’t enough judges in NSW.
Some people have been told their divorces could end up taking four years to be settled, a delay which puts lives on hold and is particularly hard on children, who need certainty in their young lives.
There is no permanent federal judge based in Wollongong, meaning federal cases – including family law issues – are only heard when the Circuit Court is sitting. In a growing region like the South Coast, it is entirely inadequate for the population.
Fixing the situation, however, might not be as easy as it might seem.
Attorney General George Brandis reports that 12 per cent of Federal Circuit Court judges are on sick leave, which is probably understandable given most of those occupying the bench are well advanced in years and prone to illness.
There are also disincentives to becoming a Federal Circuit Court judge. Unlike their state counterparts, they are not offered a pension on retirement. They are the only federal judicial officers excluded from receiving a pension after they retire under the Judges' Pension Act.
Judges are appointed until they turn 70. Given most lawyers become judges in their autumn of their careers, the lack of a pension hardly makes a Federal Circuit Court position appealing. Clearly, legislative change is needed if the shortage of judges is to be overcome.
In the meantime, lawyers will continue to advise their clients to try to settle their divorces through mediation.
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