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Wednesday, 7 March 2001
Page: 25345

Mr BYRNE (7:30 PM) —I rise to speak of the deliberate destruction by the Attorney-General of this country of one of the key services that he is responsible for in my region, that being the Family Court of Australia. In particular, I refer to his destruction by stealth of the Family Court of Dandenong, a much used and needed institution in my electorate and in my region. The Attorney-General has commenced the Trojan horse act of the removal of defended hearings from the Dandenong Registry of the Family Court of Australia. It is a decision, I believe, he pressured the Chief Justice of the Family Court of Victoria to undertake as a consequence of his massive funding cuts of $15.4 million to the Family Court nationally. The closure of the first portion of the services this Family Court delivers, defended hearings, was undertaken without consultation and is effectively the first step in a process of the removal by stealth of the entire service the Dandenong Family Court provides to the Holt electorate and indeed the entire region.

The Dandenong registry was opened by the federal Attorney-General, Senator Gareth Evans, on 20 September 1984. At the time, articles in the Law Institute Journal and the newspapers welcomed the registry as a means of easing the burden on the Melbourne registry of the Family Court. One of the main purposes for the establishment of the Dandenong registry was to provide easily accessible facilities for people involved in family law disputes. It basically has a catchment area of some 1.2 million people. Over the years the Dandenong registry has served countless electors of my region by providing counselling, legal advice, and mediation and interim hearings and, where necessary, by hearing defended matters. The Dandenong registry is described as one of the busiest in the state. Its closure for renovations, which was announced in mid-2000, has since been shelved, but the future of the Dandenong registry remains highly uncertain.

In February 2000 a number of Dandenong law firms wrote to the Judge Administrator of the Family Court of Australia, Justice Frederico, to express their concern about the potential removal of defended hearings. They were assured that any such decision would be preceded by consultation. This consultation did not occur. What did occur was a meeting between representatives from the Dandenong law firms and the Chief Justice of the Family Court, Alastair Nicholson, in August 2000. I have been informed by a number of the lawyers who attended this meeting that Justice Nicholson indicated the decision had been made to remove defended hearings and that this decision was simply not negotiable.

What kind of consultation is this? These lawyers, like me, still oppose the removal of defended hearings for a number of reasons, which I will outline. Firstly, it is maintained that no client of the Dandenong registry will be disadvantaged by the removal of defended hearings because they represented only eight per cent of the total proceedings in 1999-2000. These figures do not portray the reality of the situation. The eight per cent represents only the 405 matters which were actually listed at Dandenong. Dandenong matters which were anticipated to take longer than four days were transferred without being listed. The actual figure of defended hearings stemming from Dandenong is therefore actually much higher.

Secondly, it is claimed that moving defended hearings to the Melbourne registry will reduce delays at the Dandenong registry. I find this impossible to believe. The Dandenong registry is already far more efficient than Melbourne. A comparison of the waiting times for Dandenong and Melbourne revealed that the period between an Order 24 conference and a pre-trial hearing in the Dandenong registry is four to six weeks whereas in the Melbourne registry it is six months. It is just not plausible to suggest that increasing the caseload of the already clogged Melbourne registry, while moving defended hearings from the comparable, efficient Dandenong registry, would not disadvantage the clients at Dandenong.

Thirdly, there are logistical issues such as travelling time to consider. In one case a Dandenong lawyer conveyed to me that her client, who lives in Cranbourne, had her matter listed in Bairnsdale. The parties and witnesses had to pay for travelling time and accommodation for the duration of the hearing. Despite what the government says, the federal magistracy will not be able to resolve the increases in delays in travelling time faced by the Dandenong registry clients. The federal magistracy will only roll into town for about 19 weeks in 2001. What are people meant to do for the other 33 weeks? The federal magistracy also does not have the same jurisdiction to hear family law matters as the Dandenong registry.

However, a far more pernicious event is about to occur. The Family Court at Dandenong, in order to function, relies upon the services of two key positions: a judicial registrar and an SES registrar. The judicial registrar, in particular, can hear procedural and interim matters. There were, according to the statistics provided by the Chief Justice of the Family Court, some 4,647 hearings, other than defended hearings, in the Dandenong Family Court from 5 July 1999 to 20 July 2000. There were in that period of time an additional 405 defended matters listed for hearing in Dandenong. It has been asserted to me by a group of family law practitioners in my region that these matters could not have been heard or dealt with without a judicial registrar or an SES registrar. It will come as no surprise that effectively there will be a removal of those two key positions within the next couple of months—one person will be retired and the other will be reallocated to the already stretched Melbourne Family Court. This is an atrocious state of affairs. For those people who are used to accessing this particular service it is going to be removed from them by an act of stealth by the very person who is supposed to be responsible for the delivery of the services in this region. This is an atrocious act that should not have been allowed to occur. (Time expired)