‘Reckless’ judge shortage puts domestic violence victims at risk

DANGEROUS: Retired Newcastle Federal Circuit Court judge Giles Coakes, with Newcastle MP Sharon Claydon and Chris White, president of the Hunter Valley Family Lawyers Practitioners Association. PICTURE: Max Mason-Hubers HUNTER women seeking to escape domestic violence and children subject to abuse are being placed at even greater risk of harm because of the Turnbull government’s failure to fill a Newcastle Federal Circuit Court judge position vacant since February.
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New statistics obtained exclusively by theNewcastle Heraldreveal the two judges currently serving the city’sunder-staffed Federal Circuit Court, which deals only with family law matters, have been forced to shoulder a“reckless” work-load more than double the national average.

Chris White, the presidentof the Hunter Valley Family LawPractitioners, says delays in the courts are helping to “compounda history of people believing that the system isn’t responsive to their very serious examples of domestic violence”.

“Peopleare hearing in the media that [domestic violence] is a big worry for the community, and the government says it’sdoing everythingit can,yet when peopleseek to address these issues, the court system is just not there [for them],” he said.

Figures from the Attorney General George Brandis’soffice released to Newcastle MP Sharon Claydon revealFederal Circuit Court judges in Newcastle have each dealt with a projected case-load of some 770 matters this financial yearcompared to the national average of 376.

That has helped push the time it takes for a case to reach a trial in Newcastle to almost 19 months, a situationlegal experts say is failingthe region’s most vulnerablepeopleand pushing the justice system to the brink.

“We’re talking aboutpeople who aregoing through marital breakdowns, child custody disputes, families withdrug and alcohol abuse issues,” Ms Claydon said.

“They’realready at the end of their tether by the time theyget to court, and now we’re forcing them to waityears for a resolution.

“It’s a dangerous holding pattern for some of these families to be in.”

Mr White agreed, saying that on the“coal face” it was a huge concern for the city’s legal representatives.

RECKLESS: Attorney General George Brandis has been criticised for taking too long to appoint judges to the Newcastle Federal Circuit Court. PICTURE: Andrew Meares

He said he had been involved in one case earlier this yearwhere a father withdrug abuse and mental health issues had, despite having little previous contact with his daughter,“run off” with the child to Queensland.

He sought an urgent hearing to deal with the matter, but wasn’t able to get it before a judge for almost two months.

“In the meantime alittle girl who does’t know her father has effectively been kidnapped, for want of a better word, and the court is unable to deal with that because of a lack of resources,” he said.

“It might seem like ashort period in the context of a child’s life, but the consequenceis an indelible mark left on the child that willstay with them for their rest of their lives.”

The problem dates back to when former Newcastle Federal Circuit Court judge GilesCoakes retired in June 2015 after 11 years on the bench.

Mr Brandis waited four months before appointing his replacement, JusticeSteven Middleton, allowing the case load of the two remaining judges to blow out.

Then in February this year Justice Matthew Myers left the court after beingappointed to lead theAustralian Law Reform Commission’s inquiry intoincarceration rates of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Five months laterhis position has still not been filled, and Mr Coakes has accusedMr Brandisof being “reckless” and “negligent” by taking so long to make the appointment.

“It simply doesn’t need to take this long,” the retired judgesaid.

“Mr Brandis is failing in his responsibility as the primary law officer in the country, and he offers no excuses.”

Mr Coakes said the massiveworkload being handled by the two judgeshad“dangerous implications”.

“It means there is theincreased risk of anoversight, a mistake in calculations, or risk of not giving enough weight to a specific piece of evidence,” he said.

“All of those things stem from hurrying, which comes from the pressure to produce a result.

“It’s awful, quite frankly, and I’m surprised there hasn’t been mental breakdowns.”

However aspokeswoman for Mr Brandis saida permanent appointment was“under active consideration”.

“The appointment of a judge to a court is an important decision to which the Attorney General gives careful consideration, giving regard to a broad range of issues, including the expertise and background of potential candidates as well as consultation with relevant persons,” she said.

Newcastle Herald