Worries of Season Hit Home

Christmas trees sparkle, carols play their familiar tunes and children tear wrappings from gifts.  This is the image so often seen in Christmas movies, on cards and, if we are very lucky, in our own lounge rooms.

Sadly, for too many families this is far from reality.  Christmas can be the most stressful time of the year for families fractured through family breakdown.   For the many families who have separated in the prior 12 months this will be their first Christmas apart.  It will be the first time they have to negotiate who will wake up with the children on Christmas morning.  Such arrangements add a whole new dimension to the stresses of Christmas.

When family violence lies just below the surface, the extra stress of the “festive” season can move some towards breaking point.  According to data collated by the Queensland Police Service, breaches of domestic violence orders peak in December each year, with January coming a close second.

Some families manage to make arrangements after separation and don’t involve the family court system.  They are the lucky ones.  Many families are not so lucky.  Sadly, over 100,000 family law applications were made last year in the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court.  A lot a families rely on the family law courts to assist them through the aftermath of separation.  Many children rely on the court system to make sure their best interests are being looked after.  These important courts make decisions that affect the welfare of many children.

Australia is facing a crisis in our family law courts, due in no small part to the Government’s failure to appoint new judges in a timely way.  Courts across the country are experiencing longer and longer delays.   These courts deal with families with complex needs including mental health issues, drug and alcohol dependency, family violence, and child abuse.

Delays create further stress and frustration for families trying to resolve their disputes.  For women and children trying to flee family violence, delays can make it impossible for them to leave the horror behind.

Trial dates in some courts are now pushed out until 2017 before they can be heard by a judge.  Imagine celebrating on New Year’s Day 2016 knowing that you will be going through the whole year without any end in sight to your important family dispute.

Not replacing retiring judges in a timely manner exacerbates delays in family law courts.  Some courts have struggled for months or even more than a year without a judge being replaced.  When eventually judges are replaced, courts cannot make up the lost judicial time.  Backlogs occur that are never cleared.

There is no excuse for the Attorney-General to delay replacing judges after retirement.  When judges retire their replacement is already budgeted.  No extra money needs to be found.  The Australian Constitution requires judges to retire when they turn seventy.  The Attorney-General is well aware of which judges are due to retire many years before their gold watches must be purchased!

It was 560 days before Justice Fowler was replaced in the Sydney registry of the Family Court.  Justice Bell retired from the Brisbane registry of the Family Court ten months ago and has still not been replaced.

The family courts, as well as the families it services, are buckling under this pressure.

The best present families in Australia could receive this year would be a family court system not pushed to breaking point by the Attorney-General’s ineptitude.

This opinion piece originally appeared in the Sunday Mail on Sunday 20th December, 2015.


*If you cover this story, or any story regarding violence against women and children, please include the following tagline:
“If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000”

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