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Monday, 19 October 2015
Page: 11665


Ms CLAYDON (Newcastle) (10:43): The Federal Circuit Court is under considerable stress across Australia. There are 65 Federal Circuit Court judges, but currently there are only 61. As judges retire, they are not being replaced. This has major implications for the judicial system and for my electorate of Newcastle in particular. On 30 June this year Judge Coakes retired. He was one of three Federal Circuit Court judges in Newcastle, where the bulk of cases are family law matters.

Make no mistake: the government was well aware of the judge's plans to retire at least 18 months prior, yet the Attorney-General has consistently failed to name a successor, despite ongoing pleas from the legal profession and the broader community of Newcastle. With just two judges left, delays for cases to even be mentioned in the Newcastle court have stretched from six weeks to eight weeks to more than four months. This has enormous impacts for families trying to make arrangements post separation. The Newcastle registry has a particularly heavy caseload, with many complex cases. Newcastle families are facing unacceptable delays. For women and children fleeing family violence, these delays can place them at even greater risk and cause added distress.

I first raised my concerns about the failure to replace Judge Coakes in February this year, and made formal representations to the Attorney-General in July, again highlighting with him the issues faced in Newcastle, and calling on him to appoint a judge to the Federal Circuit Court as a matter of urgency. Regretfully, he had his chief of staff write to me instead, suggesting that it was an issue for the Chief Judge of the Federal Circuit Court, Mr John Pascoe, to decide how best to manage the judicial resources of the court on an ongoing basis. It would seem the Attorney-General has abandoned his responsibilities. Last week, the Chief Justice of the Family Court, Diana Bryant, took the extraordinary step of speaking publicly about the impact of court delays on families and children. She expressed concerns about the ongoing impact that failing to replace judges will have, and about the fact that courts will never catch up on the backlog of cases. With the Attorney-General abdicating his role as first law officer, last month I wrote to the new Prime Minister, asking him to intervene as a matter of urgency. I still await his response. The government has had over 18 months to act, and we are now at crisis point. A replacement judge must be appointed to the Federal Circuit Court immediately. It is in everyone's interests for our legal system to be adequately funded and resourced—just as our frontline services assisting victims of family violence must be adequately funded, so too must our courts dealing with family law disputes, and parenting disputes involving family violence in particular.