Victims and abusers forced to share a waiting room at Wollongong family court

Lawyers say the region's family court system has once again reached breaking point, after police had to be called to a recent altercation.

As the year wraps up there are 620 active cases in Wollongong - not including run-of-the-mill divorces - meaning hundreds of families' lives remain in limbo.

District Law Society president Lorelle Longbottom said lawyers were increasingly concerned about the ever-growing case load and lack of space in the Burelli Street court, which is responsible for hearing complex family matters across the entire Illawarra and South Coast.

Now, Sydney-based judge Tom Altobelli works three out of four weeks at the Wollongong registry while a second judge sits in the court every fourth week.

"On other weeks of the year, we can occasionally get assistance from extra judges coming down to run hearings," Ms Longbottom said.

"But, on the days we do have two judges, we only have one courtroom."

If the state court on Market Street does not have a spare room, the federal court can't sit even if there are extra judges available.

"We had a situation a few weeks ago where we had judges here, ready to try to get through some of the case load, but there was not enough courtrooms," Ms Longbottom said.

This lack of space means the backlog is continuing to grow, with families now waiting up to 2.5 years for some cases to be resolved. But more concerning to family lawyers, according Ms Longbottom, it is putting clients at risk.

"You could have a mum that has been the victim of family violence perpetrated by the other party, typically the father, so there's this huge history of family violence and they are there together, sitting in this completely tense environment," she said.

"There was an altercation just recently where the police had to attend, and we have security at the court, but there are so many people waiting there and there are sometimes new partners with people which adds to the tension."

Children, who often need to attend the court to meeting with family consultants over complex matters regarding custody, are also put at risk.

"Most of the matters in Wollongong involve a parenting dispute, so that means it's typical of that registry to have kids present," Ms Longbottom said.

"There is no privacy for them and there is often a lots of arguing, a lot of tension. There is one 'safe room', which you can book for victims of family violence if you are concerned for their safety.

"But, with 620 active cases, and if his honour has 40 cases on a day, there might be more than one case which needs a safe room and people are going to miss out.

"My concern is that those kids aren't in a good environment. If you've got a parent who hasn't seen their kids for six months or longer, how can those kids just be sitting in the registry without any screen or any protection.

"We need better facilities, more than one court room, and we need to be able to keep kids at the registry separately and away from the general public."

"It's an environment they shouldn't be exposed to."

The registry at Wollongong service Wollongong, Shellharbour, Kiama and the Shoalhaven, but it also draws from southern Sydney, Macarthur and Wollondilly, as well as south to Batemans Bay.

"Technically we're supposed to service 415,000 people, but the reality is that we've got double that in terms of population, and we've got one court room with completely inadequate facilities," Ms Longbottom said.

"If you filed now and couldn't resolve your case in that proceeding, you would be looking at at least two years for a final hearing," she said.

"People are in limbo for that period, which is horrible for people who are already facing extreme vulnerability due to their family breakdown."

Federal government focus on courts merger 'flawed'

The federal government has admitted its family court system is broken, and says a merger between the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court would help to reduce delays and backlogs.

But lawyers - including those in Wollongong - disagree, saying the government's priority should be funding for more judges, counsellors and courts.

Last week, Attorney-General Christian Porter introduced new legislation to parliament to merge the two courts, which both have jurisdiction over family law.

He said this would reduce delays and backlogs in the family law courts and remove the unnecessary confusion, duplication and additional costs that have plagued the court system for decades.

But the peak body for lawyers, the Law Council of Australia, says the merger fails to alleviate the "fundamental problems plaguing the system", including serious underfunding of legal assistance and a lack of judges.

In Wollongong, where there is only the one Federal Circuit Court, the effect of this underfunding has reached boiling point.

Local lawyers are now highlighting their serious safety concerns about victims and abusers who are foced to share a single waiting room.

For Wollongong District Law Society president Lorelle Longbottom, the focus and money going towards the merger bill adds to her frustration.

"They are putting money into activities - like this merger - when they should be doing other things, like looking at the basic facilities," Ms Longbottom said.

"We need more money for facilities, more judges and more family consultant time."

National Law Council President Arthur Moses SC has also highlighted the growing national wait times for family law cases, saying only 62 per cent of final order applications in the Federal Circuit Court were completed in 12 months, far below the target of 90 per cent.

In the Family Court, the percentage of applications over tow years old jumped from 16 to 22 per cent in 2018-19, he said.

"We are still seeing devastating delays for families with some unable to obtain final hearing dates for two years," he said.

Mr Moses said no additional funding had been allocated for the recruitment of new judges, and had been "deliberately withheld" by the government unless the "flawed" merger is passed.

"We urge the government to retain and properly resource a specialist, stand-alone family court," he said.

Mr Porter said the new Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia Bills were informed by independent inquiries held over the past decade, the most recent of which found the merger had the potential to allow an extra 8,000 cases to be resolved each year.

:"Doing nothing is no longer an option, as Australian families deserve better," he said. "Our courts need to function efficiently so that people can move through them as quickly as possible and then get on with rebuilding their lives."

"This is critically important for children of separating couples."


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