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WA Family Court under huge strain

Court under huge strain

THE Family Court of WA is straining under a huge caseload, yet has fewer judges today than it had 30 years ago.

Attorney General Jim McGinty will this week confront his federal counterpart Philip Ruddock over the judge-shortage.

"The waiting times have been blowing out astronomically," said Mr McGinty.

The court has only had four judges since Chief Judge Michael Holden retired in February. There is now a giant backlog in cases.

"Family Court funding is a Commonwealth responsibility and excessive court delays can cause enormous disruption to the lives of the separating parents and their children," Mr McGinty said.

Waiting times have blown out by five months since February. The average waiting time for a trial is now 18 months.

The number of matters waiting a trial date has increased from 336 in July 2006, to 516 in June 2007.

"Phillip Ruddock is refusing to allow us to appoint a replacement judge," said Mr McGinty. "I have no doubt that he is trying to starve the WA Family Court of resources as part of a federal takeover of the court.

"WA has 9.79 per cent of Australia's population and covers one third of the country's land mass but in 2006-07 the State received only 7.5 per cent of the money allocated by the Federal Government for Family Courts throughout Australia.

"Based on current projections, the court is under-funded by $1.1 million per annum.

"Since 2003, the Commonwealth has not provided the court full cost-of-living adjustments on an annual basis. The court faces the reality it will run out of cash by early 2008."

The Federal Government, though, expects the court to become less busy with the introduction of compulsory mediation. It is spending $400 million rolling out 65 Family Relationship Centres across the country to help couples agree on parenting plans, without going to court.

Under the amended Family Law Act, separating parents are now required to attend a dispute resolution session with an independent mediator before being able to proceed to court. The changes, which require parents to make a genuine effort, kicked in on July 1.

Mr McGinty remains unhappy. In April last year he applied for an increase in family court resources for the rapidly growing South-West region.

"A year and three months later, I have not had an answer from Mr Ruddock," he said.

Family Law Practitioners' Association president Peter Cole said: "Considering that a family law matter can be such a traumatic process people often need these matters dealt with as quickly as possible.

"It is possible to have a matter expedited but if that cannot be done then a case might not get before a court for 18 months."

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