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Wednesday, 12 September 1984
Page: 887

Senator ZAKHAROV —My question is addressed to the Attorney-General. In view of concern that delays in the processes of the Family Court, particularly in cases involving custody and maintenance, may have contributed to violence related to that Court, what steps is the Government taking to reduce such delays, particularly in the availability of counselling?

Senator GARETH EVANS —The Government is acutely aware of the need to avoid delays in the Family Court, especially in cases of custody and disputed maintenance. The problem of violence, which tends to be closely associated with cases involving custody of children and so on, is a matter on which the Government has taken a number of urgent remedial actions which I outlined to Senator Elstob in answer to questions earlier this session, particularly on 22 August.

Senator Zakharov's question adverted particularly to the need for increased counselling facilities. When this question was last raised in the Senate by Senator Crowley in June I said that we were doing our best to monitor delays and to overcome them. I am now pleased to be able to advise the Senate of an immediate increase of 25 staff for the Family Court, which was announced in July , and a further set of Budget increases of another 40 staff for the Court, making a total of 485 or a 9 per cent increase this year. The decision on how that extra staff will be allocated is a matter for the Family Court. However, I think that honorable senators will agree, as I do, that priority ought to be given to augmenting the conciliation staff of that Court.

There are a number of other initiatives that we are taking in the family law area, in particular the building programs to improve accommodation and security for the Court. More particularly we are creating a new approach to dealing with Family Court matters. Rather than involving people immediately in the litigation process where there appear to be irreconcilable conflicts looming, we are anxious to develop the concept of mediation, conciliation and the resolution of disputes other than by litigation as much as possible. With that in mind, we are developing pilot family law centres with those objectives in Wollongong and Dandenong which will operate as projects for 12 months each and for which budgetary allocations have been made.

The bottom line in dealing with Family Court problems, as with many other areas of government activity, is adequate staffing resources. The type of matters that the Court deals with, marital breakdown and custody disputes in particular, involve strong emotions, and any delays can only heighten distress for the people involved-clients, judges and the Court staff. Certainly, whatever approach one brings to bear on this, it is only with the addition of increased staff resources of the kind that this Government has made available that these problems can and will be appropriately tackled.