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Thursday, 9 November 2000
Page: 22673

Ms LIVERMORE (10:04 AM) —On the face of it, the Jurisdiction of Courts (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill 2000 is a non-controversial bill, and the opposition is supporting its passage through the parliament. Its controversy, if you can call it that, lies in the context of what is happening at a broader level with the Family Court and Family Court services in regional Australia, particularly in my electorate of Capricornia. The bill clears up a number of oversights in the jurisdiction of the Federal Court and the Federal Magistrates Service in relation to applications under the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977 and the jurisdiction of the Federal Magistrates Service in matrimonial causes under the Family Law Act 1975.

The context this bill falls into is the relationship between the federal magistracy and the Family Court. According to the Attorney-General, the establishment of the Federal Magistrates Service was designed to ease the burden of the Family Court's workload. I think most members in this place would not argue with the fact that that workload is substantial and growing all the time and that ways need to be found to assist families in settling their disputes. The setting up of the Federal Magistrates Service involved a cut of $15.4 million from the Family Court's budget. That cut was justified by the fact that the money was to be allocated to the federal magistracy, which would have the effect of assisting the Family Court to divest itself of some of its workload.

In Rockhampton, which is the major centre in my electorate, we have seen plenty of evidence of the cuts to the Family Court budget, but we have not seen much at all in the way of replacement services for what we have lost in the Family Court area. What is happening in the registry in Rockhampton is the first obvious sign of the budget cuts to the Family Court. In Rockhampton the subregistry is attached to the Townsville registry. A few weeks ago, the subregistry office was downgraded from a full-time operation to a two day a week operation. The subregistry is now going to be open for two days a week, but for five days a week when the circuit is sitting in Rockhampton. That is about 26 weeks a year.

This has already had the effect of forcing the receptionist/filing clerk, who was employed there for some years, out of that job. When you are told that your job is going to go from five days a week full time to two days a week for part of the year and five days a week for other parts of the year—which is still subject to negotiation over circuits and sitting dates—it is not much of an option for a highly experienced professional person. Stacey Vea Vea, who has held that job—she is very highly regarded for her competence and her compassion in always looking to assist clients coming to the Family Court registry—has been snapped up by a local firm of lawyers. They saw her skills as being too valuable to be wasted, and she certainly felt that way too. She saw the job as not being a very attractive option. At the moment, someone else is filling the role on a casual basis, and I am assured by the Family Court registry in Townsville that there will be endeavours to fill that position full time. But, given the fact that it is a fairly strange sort of job these days, it seems unlikely.

We are losing not only the person doing the documentation and filing work, but all the other services the registry has traditionally offered in Rockhampton. The registry provides a lot of information to people who are experiencing family breakdown, assistance in filling out documents and in assessing the right documents people require for the situation they find themselves in. Stacey Vea Vea, who has a lot of experience and a professional manner, has assisted a lot of people with those questions and problems.

I am really worried that we are losing that service, and there is not much to replace it in Rockhampton. Like most regional centres, we are not spoiled for choice in these sorts of things. Often people come in from places such as Gladstone in the electorate of the member who sits opposite, Emerald and a variety of outlying areas. They come into the registry but the door is closed, because who knows what two days of the week it is going to be open? They see the closed door, and wonder about their options in Rockhampton. Maybe they could go to Legal Aid, but it is obviously stretched as well for resources and staff, or they could go to the community legal centre. But I still think they find themselves in a fairly distressing situation after seeing that closed door at the Family Court registry, when in the past they could have gone in, had some myths dispelled and had some guidance from a professional officer of the Family Court as to the right direction in which to go. Those people would be a lot closer to getting some matters resolved and feeling more positive about being in control of the process. For those people, a lot of them self-represented litigants, seeing a closed door at the court will have a fairly negative impact on their view of just how likely it will be that they will find anything positive in the Family Court process.

The other issue is that this is supposed to be some kind of budgetary measure. I do not really see that much is going to be saved. You are still going to need to pay rent on the premises— you cannot pay rent for two days a week for half the year and five days a week for the rest of the year. You are saving a tiny amount on salary, but I think the figures just do not add up when you consider the loss in terms of the service that was being provided to the community.

I am fairly unconvinced that we are ever going to see this service again in Rockhampton. The Townsville registry said, `Well, we'll be getting work from Rockhampton; people will be calling us from Rockhampton,' but there is no way of keeping statistics on that. So, when work is picked up from Rockhampton that could otherwise have been done by the Rockhampton subregistry and the Rockhampton filing clerk, there is no way of actually knowing the level of that demand. Now that we have seen the foot in the door of the downgrading of the Rockhampton subregistry, regardless of how much extra work is being generated in the Townsville or Brisbane registries, it is very difficult to see how we are ever going to demonstrate the demand in a statistical way in order to get the service back.

There is some light on the horizon. According to the lawyers in Rockhampton, the federal magistracy, in particular the Federal Magistrate, who appears to be taking on the responsibility for the Rockhampton circuit, is being extremely cooperative. There is talk of whether there can be resources used from the Federal Magistrate's budget to support the registry in Rockhampton. That is very positive, and the lawyers in Rockhampton are certainly grateful that the Federal Magistrate is taking a fairly pragmatic view on that. But it still sounds pretty ridiculous when, in effect, money is taken from the Family Court budget to set up a Federal Magistrates Service, and now the Federal Magistrate is talking about trying to look at ways of putting money back into what is effectively the Family Court structure.

The government can dress this up as much as it likes by pretending that it is offering some new, better service to Rockhampton in the form of a Federal Magistrate—there are definitely benefits, and the local practitioners are looking on it as positively as possible—but, as much as it is dressed up, it is effectively a downgrading of the services that we have enjoyed in Rockhampton in the Family Court area. It basically flies in the face of the Prime Minister's promise to us earlier this year that there would be no cuts to services in regional Australia.

Another point about the Family Court services in Rockhampton relates to counselling. Again, it is a tale of the demise of the services in our Family Court registry office. We started out with two full-time Family Court counsellors. I remember that when I first started working in family law in Rockhampton we had two excellent Family Court counsellors. They had a very high rate of settling family law disputes, and other family law practitioners have told me that they certainly found it to be the case as well. The Family Court counsellors were very well regarded professionally by the legal fraternity in Rockhampton, and that level of cooperation between the legal fraternity and the Family Court counsellors did produce a very high rate of settlement, which was something to be very proud of.

Over the last couple of years it has slowly dwindled away: some Family Court counsellors left, some took leave—and these people were not replaced. We currently have a private psychologist who is contracted by the Family Court to do two days per week of court-ordered counselling. There are now definite moves towards contracting that counselling work out totally to community organisations.

I met with representatives of some of the prospective counselling organisations a few weeks ago to find out their views on the work that they were being asked to do and what their needs would be if they were going to pick up this work. The feeling from those counselling organisations was a positive one, but there were very big qualifications. All of the counsellors stressed that they would need a very high level of training and support from the Family Court structure. The Family Court structure in Queensland is basically in Brisbane or Townsville, so I am not sure that the level of support needed is really going to be there for community counsellors in Rockhampton.

I was really struck by the situation when one of the previous Family Court counsellors in Rockhampton—who is now a private psychologist—talked about when he started in the Family Court as a counsellor in the 1980s. He had two months of full-time training when he started in that position. I cannot see that the Family Court is going to come to those community based organisations and say, `Great, we're going to pay for you to undertake two months of full-time training before we throw you in at the deep end to conduct this counselling for the Family Court.' If that happens, that is fine, but I think it is very unlikely.

Another woman at the meeting is a barrister in Rockhampton, but she is a former social worker. She talked of her experience as a social worker when Family Court counselling positions came up. Traditionally, it was only the most experienced social workers who would even consider applying for those jobs, because of the level of difficulty involved and the level of experience required in handling the really fraught and distressing personal situations that people were being confronted with. My real concern is that the optimism shown by the community based counsellors at this meeting seemed to be based on a fairly hopeful and flimsy premise that there was going to be a very high level of training and support from the Family Court. My real fear is that this is not a genuine attempt by the Family Court to explore new and better ways of dealing with family breakdown. It is really just a flick pass: it is the Family Court trying to cut corners—to cut money out of the counselling services and save money. I feel for the community based counselling services in that scenario, and I also feel for the families who rely on counselling to try and resolve their situations in the most amicable and practical ways possible.

Obviously, Family Court counselling is very different from the relationship counselling which the community organisations are currently engaged in: you cannot disconnect it from the legal process that is going on. The counsellor is not just concentrating on the relationship of those people in a vacuum; it is totally connected to the legal process going on, and the outcome of the counselling session has to be fed back into the legal process—either in terms of resolving the dispute between the two partners or in terms of reporting back to the court for ongoing legal determinations. So I think it is a quantum leap between the sort of relationship counselling that organisations like Relationships Australia and Anglicare are currently engaged in and the role that they would be expected to perform for the Family Court if they take on the court's kind of counselling work. A very high and comprehensive level of training will be required for those counsellors to take on that role.

The other aspect of counselling is the relationship between the Federal Magistrates Service and counselling. It appears that there is no specific provision at this stage for the federal magistracy to include a counselling service. Before we in Central Queensland completely put our faith in the Federal Magistrates Service as the answer to Family Court matters and dealing with Family Court cases, I would really want to know how counselling will be incorporated into the Federal Magistrates Service. Is there going to be a fee for service from those community based counselling organisations? If so, where is that money coming from out of the Federal Magistrates Service budget? This issue is one that came up when I met with lawyers recently. They feel that the current lack of clarity on that issue puts them in a quandary. They are quite attracted by the idea of being able to have a very regular service from the Federal Magistrate, to get family law matters dealt with quickly and expeditiously. But they do not want then to deprive their clients of the prospect of having counselling as well, as part of finding an outcome or a settlement to their issues.

The lawyers in Rockhampton that I spoke to are really proud of the level of settlement, without having to go through the full court process, that is achieved. They have a very cooperative relationship amongst the legal practitioners in Rockhampton and have traditionally had a very cooperative relationship with the Family Court counsellors and, currently, the psychologist who is doing the Family Court counselling on a contract basis. I was certainly very pleased and proud of the lawyers' attitude when Robert McClelland and I had a meeting with them a couple of weeks ago. Their concern was all about their clients, about the families that they saw coming to them, needing help to settle their differences. It is certainly not about increasing the level of Family Court services in Rockhampton just so that we can ramp up litigation in the town; it is really about making sure that there are appropriate, affordable and accessible services for the families that are needing the help. The lawyers have expressed their concerns to me and have vowed to join with me in fighting to keep this issue alive, to make sure that our registry is not downgraded and to ensure that counselling services are available to families, whether it is through the community based organisations or through the Family Court—as long as the Family Court does not see counselling as just another way to slash and burn and save pennies.

If it is a genuine attempt to find new ways of settling family disputes, community based organisations may be able to play a role in that. But if it is, as I suspect, just a cost cutting measure, a flick pass of the Family Court's responsibilities, you will certainly be hearing a lot more about it from me and from the legal fraternity and community of Rockhampton. This is just another cut to our services and we have seen it too many times not to recognise the thin edge of the wedge. We do not want to see the other end of the wedge. We are going to keep fighting for our counselling services and for our registry services.