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Monday, 15 September 2003
Page: 20045

Ms HOARE (4:50 PM) —I too welcome the opportunity to speak on the member for Ryan's motion concerning the Federal Magistrates Service. I thank the member for Ryan for bringing this matter to the attention of the House. The Federal Magistrates Service was established by the Federal Magistrates Act 1999 and conducted its first hearing in July 2000. The purpose of the court was to relieve some of the workload of the Family Court and the Federal Court and to provide a simple and more accessible alternative to litigation in those courts.

However, the service has not eased pressure on these courts, particularly the Family Court. With cuts in past budgets, pressure on the Family Court grows. In the Canberra Times on 30 October last year, it was reported that the Chief Justice of the Family Court, Alastair Nicholson, said that the Federal Magistrates Service had not reduced the workload of the Family Court but had increased the burden on the staff of the court. The Family Court recently cut from eight to three the number of senior registrars, who are responsible for making interim orders about residence and contact with children ahead of a final hearing. With the cutting of Family Court staff to pay for the Federal Magistrates Service, many interim and urgent matters now have to come before a judge rather than a registrar.

I am sure most members would be contacted fairly often by constituents who are concerned about how the family law system works. I know many constituents who are angry at the delays they experience in resolving family law disputes. People have contacted me because they are concerned about the fact that, once they have filed for orders relating to child or property matters, their file will sit in a pre-trial queue for nine to 12 months before being allocated a hearing date. This, combined with other delays in the process, means that many defended cases will take in excess of two years to come to trial. This can also result in enormous legal bills.

Many members would also be aware that the Family Court has taken some positive steps to help people avoid unnecessary trials and to resolve matters through mediation and other processes. I am most supportive of these measures and am reassured that the court is continuing to develop these alternative approaches. I recently had the opportunity to visit the Newcastle Registry of the Family Court. While I was there I learnt of the enormous amount of casework both the Federal Magistrates Service and the Family Court deal with on a daily basis. It is quite staggering. They do so with a small staff, including Mr Justice Graham Mullane and Federal Magistrate Mr Warren Donald.

I welcomed the announcement in this year's budget of the appointment of an additional federal magistrate in Newcastle. Although the new magistrate is yet to be announced, I do hope the position will assist in relieving some of the burden of work on the Family Court and the current federal magistrate. I have recently been advised that one of the federal magistrates in Parramatta has been seconded to Melbourne, leaving the people on that magistrate's lists in Parramatta without hearings until next year in some cases. This is appalling and adds to the burden on people wanting to resolve their family law disputes.

While I was at the Newcastle Registry of the Family Court, I was interested to learn that in most final defended cases that come before the court one or more of the parties suffers from depression, a more serious mental illness, a personality disorder, alcoholism or an addiction to another drug or has a disposition to violence, control or other abusive behaviours. Many are legally unrepresented, which places further pressure on court staff—this all takes its toll on the resources of the court—who need to deal with people's difficult circumstances.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Hon. I.R. Causley)—Order! The time allotted for private members' business has expired. The debate is interrupted in accordance with standing order 104A. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting. The honourable member for Charlton will have leave to continue her remarks when the debate is resumed.