13 October 2007
Family Court grabs the lion's share of federal funding
By Michael Pelly
Attorney General Philip Ruddock has promised adjustments to funding for federal courts amid concerns the Family Court is citing the complexity of its work to justify massive discrepancies.
The court will receive $131million in funding for 2007-08, a figure that matches the total for both the Federal Court ($78million) and Federal Magistrates Court ($53 million).
Yet court statistics show it is doing a fraction of the work of the other two courts.
In 2006-07, the Federal Court handed 6158 matters and the magistrates court 40,108. This was divided into family law filings (32,530) and general federal law (7658). Mr Ruddock said the family court handled more than 15,500 new matters, but the court insisted the number was 27,313.
Family Court Chief Justice Diana Bryant said her court provided the magistrates court with free services worth $16.46 million last financial year. This year the estimated value is $13.57 million.
Magistrates court chief magistrate John Pascoe is on leave but has consistently argued for more direct funding to his court.
The Attorney-General referred to the high level of co-operation between the Family Court and magistrates court, but at times the reality has been different.
Mr Ruddock wrote to the heads of the Federal Court, Family Court and magistrates court late last year asking for their views on funding.An Adelaide Family Court judge has ordered magistrates court staff out of tea rooms for stealing "Family Court teabags" and there was an attempt to have the entire magistrates court staff banned from the Family Court floor because they were a "security risk".
Requests from the magistrates court to use vacant Family Court rooms in Sydney and Brisbane have been refused. When an Adelaide magistrate ignored a refusal and moved into a vacant office, his computer was disconnected by Family Court staff.
This week, a spokeswoman said the Federal Court's appropriation was $8.018 million less, "reflecting an appropriation reallocation of this amount to the Federal Magistrates Court".
"This budget transfer reflects the cost of some services previously provided free of charge to the Federal Magistrates Court by the Federal and Family Courts," she said.
Chief Justice Bryant said the free services "cover the work of court staff for the magistrates court and accommodation, including access to court rooms".
In addition to the free services that have been costed, "the Family Court provides further services (not costed) on a shared basis: these include IT services, accommodation, work of court staff (family consultants, registrars and filing registry services) and related depreciation and amortisation".
The Attorney-General's office said the Family Court's functions included mediation, conciliation and joint conferences by family consultants and registrars, which accounted for a much of the Family Court's budget funding.
The spokeswoman said the court maintained registries in more locations than the Federal Court and conducted circuits in a number of additional locations.
"Ordinary Australians are most likely to encounter a federal court while being a party to a family law dispute in the Federal Magistrates Court or the Family Court. Funding reflects this."
Chief Justice Bryant said "no inference" could be drawn from comparing the budget with the number of filings, but in the past the chief justice has stressed the "more complex" nature of her court's work, compared with that of the magistrates court.