Family courts

In early October, Federal Circuit Court Justice Andrew Guy was tragically found dead in Brisbane after being reported missing for 5 days. The NSW Bar Association says that his suicide is a reminder of the stress, heavy workload and loneliness faced by the Australian judiciary. The NSW Bar Association’s President, Rebecca Treston, commented that in ‘the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia in particular, the workloads are completely crushing and relentless’.

If you’ve ever put an application through an Australian court, you have most likely experienced a delay from application through to hearing. So, how long does a family law case take to progress from application through to trial? Well, it depends.

Given the backlog of cases experienced by the family courts, lawyers have reported that it may take up to four years for a final hearing in the Family Court. Similarly, in some cases, it can be difficult to get a date for interim orders. These delays are compounded by disruption caused by COVID-19 creating need for urgent revisions, unfilled judicial vacancies and inability to keep up with workloads.

How does the family law system attempt to address delays? Parties are always encouraged to reach an agreement at any point during proceedings. Parties can also create a Parenting Plan or a Binding Financial Agreement, and file consent orders for approval by the court. Parties in most cases also undertake mandatory Family Dispute Resolution (FDR). This legislative requirement was introduced in the aim of resolving matters before they go to court.

With appropriate risk assessment, the introduction of FDR can be useful to address the magnitude of family law matters before the courts by allowing parties to come up with their own agreement, only litigating as a last resort. However, given the crushing workload and lack of resources, urgent attention needs to be given to the judiciary if