The judicial system is no stranger to complaints regarding the amount of time it takes for cases to be heard.
Although the case load for Federal Circuit Court judges has always been relatively high, recently released statistics regarding the Newcastle Federal Circuit Court’s workload has prompted public criticism
Attorney-General George Brandis’ Delay in appointing Newcastle Federal Circuit Court judges
Former Newcastle Federal Circuit Court judge Giles Coakes has openly criticised the federal Attorney-General George Brandis for the unacceptable amount of time taken to replace himself and another judge (Justice Matthew Myers); thereby ‘recklessly’ overburdening the two remaining judges in the Newcastle registry with the massive caseload.
The problem, which has been argued as persisting for over two years, dates back to June 2015, when Judge Giles Coakes retired after 11 years on the bench.
Despite Judge Coakes giving 18 months notice of impending retirement, it took Mr Brandis four months to appoint his replacement: Justice Steven Middleton.
Furthermore, although Justice Matthew Myers left the Newcastle registry 5 months ago in February 2017 to lead the Australian Law Reform Commission’s inquiry into incarceration rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, his position has remained unfilled.
The remaining two Newcastle Federal Circuit Court judges -Judge Janet Terry and Judge Steven Middleton – are juggling a caseload Judge Coakes describes as having ‘dangerous implications’. Statistics released by Senator Brandis’ office to Newcastle MP Sharon Claydon indicate that the Newcastle Federal Circuit Court handled 770 cases in the last financial year. In comparison, the national average for comparable courts was 376. With only two permanent judges on the Newcastle registrar shouldering more than double the national average, this arouses cause for concern.
The failure to appoint replacement judges in a timelier manner has led to extremely lengthy delays for families waiting to hear their case in Court. The approximate amount of time it takes for matters to reach trial in the Newcastle Federal Circuit Court is 19 months. Considering only the most serious family law cases are heard in court, this is a risky situation that experts say is failing the Hunter region’s most vulnerable people; such as domestic violence victims.
An example cited by Chris White- president of the Hunter Valley Family Law Practitioners-is the case of a father with drug abuse and mental health issues ‘effectively kidnapping’ his young daughter, whom he had little previous contact with. White sought an urgent hearing for the matter, but was only able to have the case before a Court after a 2 month delay due to Newcastle Federal Circuit Court’s substantial caseload. This 2-month waiting period where the young girl was subject to a greater risk of harm and abuse is feared to have left the child with an ‘indelible’ mark for the rest of her life.
Federal Government’s failure to appoint replacements efficiently in conflict with their ‘strong’ stance against domestic violence
The Government has publicly denounced domestic violence in the media and is taking positive action against it, with the 2017 Budget announcing a major review of the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth) and a proposal to ensure self-represented alleged perpetrators of domestic violence cannot cross-examine the domestic violence victim in question.
Despite this strong stance against domestic violence, Hunter region family law practitioner Chris White has argued the Court delays are sending out a different message.
Mr White claims that when victims actually seek to address domestic violence, the court system fails to adequately support them because the time taken to decide cases is too long and, effectively, the Court is not ‘actively present’ in their battle.
Furthermore, Mr White argues that the justice system’s unresponsiveness to serious domestic violence matters will only encourage negative perceptions of the Court’s ability to deliver outcomes against domestic violence.
Newcastle MP Sharon Claydon has also stated the delay in replacing Justice Matthew Myers is ‘inexcusable’ and causing anguish to vulnerable families. Although Ms Claydon wrote to Senator Brandis in March 2017 requesting the vacancy be filled, four months later she is ‘still waiting [and] in complete limbo’.
Finally, retired Newcastle Federal Circuit Court judge Giles Coakes has stated that not only does the substantial workload cause delays which places vulnerable people at risk of domestic abuse, it also means the two remaining judges are at risk of oversight or mistakes in calculations due to ‘hurrying’ under the pressure.
Overall, the Hunter region legal professionals and advocates have argued the Australian government is sending yet another example of mixed messages on their stance on domestic violence.
Principal of Justice Family Lawyers, Hayder specialises in complex parenting and property family law matters. He is based in Sydney and holds a Bachelor of Law and Bachelor of Communications from UTS.