The Age

Friday 20 August 1999

Report slams Family Court

The Age

Family Court procedures are so riddled with inefficiencies, and its cases so poorly handled, that people are being denied justice, an investigation into the nation's court system has found.

The Australian Law Reform Commission's long-awaited report on the federal justice system has singled out the Family Court of Australia for its harshest criticism, finding that it was hamstrung by bureaucratic rigidity.

The report, released yesterday, urged the adoption of a better system that would make inefficient judges more accountable.

The commission's president, Professor David Weisbrot, said it would also make judges more responsive to people's needs, a feature that was sadly lacking under the present structure.

The report said that, contrary to anecdotal evidence, the non-criminal system operated reasonably well and that Australia was not facing a ``crisis'' similar to the American experience.

However, in regard to the Family Court, there was widespread frustration and delay over different court officers' handling of cases at successive levels, requiring repeated recounting of the facts.

The commission recommended assigning cases to a particular judge from start to finish - a move that would not only tackle this problem but force inefficient judges to clear their workloads.

``We've heard examples of Family Court judges saying they work to rule because if they handle their cases quickly all they get are more cases given to them from judges who aren't so efficient,'' Professor Weisbrot told The Age.

The findings were rejected by the Chief Justice of the Family Court, Justice Alistair Nicholson, who accused the commission of reaching misleading conclusions using outdated data, and of not recognising the difficulties unique to family law.

The commission found that the Family Court raised people's expectations and then failed to meet them in most cases. The commission examined 1400 cases over a two-month period before delivering its damning conclusions.

``The design of the case-management system was said to add unnecessarily to costs and delays for many cases, contribute to poor compliance with directions and orders and to diminish the efficacy of adjudication,'' the report found.

``Significant numbers of litigants and lawyers indicated to the commission that parties are settling their cases because of their frustration with the court's case-management process, when what they really wanted was a fast track to a decision by a judicial officer.''

Professor Weisbrot said he acknowledged the difficulties of the jurisdiction, but said there was no reason why the court's performance could not be far closer to that achieved by the Federal Court.

Copyright © David Syme & Co 1999.