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Tuesday, 8 December 1998
Page: 1651


Ms O'BYRNE (10:45 PM) —I rise tonight on a matter requiring the urgent attention of this government, that is, the replacement of the second Family Law Court judge in Tasmania. This matter has been the subject of notices of motion in the Tasmanian Legislative Council today, and it received wide cross party support. The motion that was carried without dissent reads as follows:

That this council calls upon the Federal Government to appoint another Tasmanian based Family Court Judge as a matter of urgency.

This is an urgent matter and it requires urgent attention. I shall start by providing members, particularly those opposite, with a brief history of this matter. In November 1994, Justice Butler indicated he wished to move to Hobart, and the Chief Justice approved this. As a result of practitioner pressure, the Chief Justice, Justice Hannon and the Judge Administrator met with practitioners in the Family Court at Launceston in December 1994. The Chief Justice gave an assurance that the service to the north of the state would not be downgraded. In January 1995, Justice Butler moved to Hobart. During 1995, various assurances were received from Warwick Smith that Justice Butler would be replaced at Launceston when he retired.

On 26 April 1996, the Family Court proposed the closing of the northern registry and not replacing Justice Butler as a means of meeting budget cuts imposed by the federal government. To not replace Justice Butler was budgeted to save $305,000 per annum. On 18 October 1996, the registry closed for the last time. On 9 December 1996, Justice Butler was formally farewelled by the Full Court and sat for his last time. Since then, the north of the state has been serviced by visits from Justice Hannon in Hobart and visits on circuit from mainland judges. Since 1996, judge time in the north of the state has reduced from 20 weeks to 12 weeks.

On 27 July this year, the Family Law Court reviewed its procedures and cancelled all future appointments that had been made for pre-hearing conferences. It made a determination not to allocate any more pre-hearing, and therefore any more trial dates, until the large number of adjourned hearings were completed. At this point, the list of cases outstanding but ready for trial numbered 65. By the end of October that had grown to 108. By 24 November, that list had grown to 127. The court `estimate' was that `probably' they would be in a position to begin allocating pre-hearing conferences in February or March next year. We can only hope that that will lead to some trial dates before the middle of the year. It seems at the moment that there is no end in sight as more cases are being added to the list than can be dealt with by judicial determination or consent orders.

How have the government so far responded to questions raised about the impact of not replacing Justice Butler in Tasmania? With spurious arguments. There have been claims that Tasmania does not need an additional judge because we are already `overserviced'. However, on our population base Tasmania can satisfy 1.7 judges. I also remind members that, when Justice Butler's replacement was finally appointed, that appointment was made in Sydney. This was despite the fact that, according to statistics at least, Tasmania's delays were worse than Sydney's at that time. According to the performance standard sheets, delays in Sydney were only 44 weeks for child matters whilst Tasmanian delays were 53 weeks. In Sydney, financial matters were taking 52 weeks against 60 weeks in Tasmania.

While Justice Butler was sitting Tasmania had an incredibly efficient settlement rate—something I should think we all want to see. I have been told by government representatives that we should focus on diverting people away from the use of hearings. I fully support adequately funded education, counselling and mediation processes. However, unlike this government, I recognise the reality of the situation. It would be really nice if everybody could settle their disputes amicably. But in the real world some people cannot settle outside the court room, remembering that only five per cent of Family Court matters ever get to the point of requiring a hearing.

There is no other option for these people. Every other avenue is closed to them. Not offering them access to the judicial system will not get families back together. It will not reduce the divorce rate. All it does is put those people who are already in untenable positions under far more stress. Unfortunately, time does not permit me to give explanations of how these delays are affecting families and particularly children. It is a cruel game to play with families. I urge the government to rethink its policy and to heed the concerns of the Law Council and the Tasmanian upper house and give Tasmania what they promised in 1996—a second Tasmanian based Family Law Court judge.