Family Law Court - Wollongong

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Ms BIRD (Cunningham) (12:38): I am taking the opportunity in the House today to put on the public record some real concerns in my local area about the support and staffing for our Family Court in Wollongong. It is a matter that has been in the public debate in our local area for about a year now, and I have met with local solicitors, in particular, who are very concerned about the pressures being put on their clients. The problem we have, of course, is that the Attorney-General had not replaced some retiring judges. There was a shortage of judges and we were seeing a massive backlog of cases. My understanding is that at the last count there were something like 600 cases in backlog.

As members here would know very well, the Family Court is dealing with some of the most stressful and difficult circumstances that people enter into. They are seeking resolution, in particular, to issues around their children and settling arrangements for their long-term future. When you are waiting two or three years for a hearing date, that just exacerbates all the stress within families that goes on as a result of a break-up anyway. We heard one story only recently of a local family who were told that, if they wanted to get the matter resolved any quicker, their only option was to go from Wollongong to a Brisbane court to get a decision. That is just absolutely unacceptable, and so the member for Throsby and I have been working with our local solicitors and our local constituents to try and get this matter addressed with some urgency.

The reason that I am seeking to put it on the record of this House today is that, given all of these pressures, it was very frustrating in estimates this week that the Attorney-General indicated to the committee that he had only received one representation on the issue from another senator—senator Fierravanti-Wells. In actual fact, the Attorney-General received a letter from the member for Throsby and I in December last year highlighting to him the problems that we were having and the concerns that we had for our local constituents. Indeed, his Chief of Staff wrote back to us in January this year, not offering any resolution but acknowledging the concerns that we had raised in our letter. The Attorney-General was particularly inaccurate when he said that he had not had representations.

As a result of the reply by the Chief of Staff, the member for Throsby and I decided to write again to say that we were very concerned that our local family court had a permanent judge who was there to provide services to our local people, and, if you know the geography of our area, many people accessing that court are coming from quite a long way south—a couple of hours drive south of Wollongong—to access the Wollongong courts, so being sent to Sydney is even more problematic for them. Recognising that, we invited the member for Gilmore to join us in writing to the Attorney-General so that all three members covering the drawing area of the court would have, with one voice, said to the Attorney-General that we want this matter urgently resolved and we want a permanent presence in our local family court. To her great credit, the member for Gilmore co-signed the letter to the Attorney-General. Not only had the Attorney-General had a letter from the two Labor representatives in our area, he had also subsequently received a letter from all three elected federal members in the area, including his own colleague the member for Gilmore. It was particularly frustrating to us, again, that the Attorney-General indicated in estimates that he had not received any representations.

So that it cannot be missed and it cannot be misrepresented, I am putting it on the record in the House today. There is a bipartisan view in the Illawarra and South Coast that our families need a full-time family court judge presence in Wollongong. We need this in the best interests of the most vulnerable—the children—but also for the men and women who are caught up in this process. We need to take the pressure off them, get them a resolution and not add to the difficulties that everyone is going through at these sorts of times. Attorney-General, it is on the record. There is no running from it, so get it solved.