More than 20 retired Family Court judges have answered a call to come back to the bench to smash a backlog of 7,000 cases.
- A Newcastle lawyer has applauded the judges’ actions but says the move is a “bandaid solution”
- Serving judges are juggling up to 600 cases at a time and the failure to replace open positions has been criticised
- The Family Court is set to merge with the Federal Circuit Court next month
The backlog is due to ballooning wait times and a lag in replacing judges who have retired, leaving remaining judges with crippling workloads.
The wait to get to the Family Court can be two years and some judges have 600 cases or more on their dockets.
The retired judges have offered to help pro bono or for a minimal fee to clear thousands of custody and property cases before September, when the Family Court will merge with the Federal Circuit Court.
The federal government said there was a need to reform the court structure and a merger was the best option.
It said it would increase the number of matters that could be resolved each year and reduce waiting times for families in dispute.
But the merger has been criticised by some, including members of the Hunter’s legal fraternity.
Former Newcastle judge Giles Coakes, who retired in 2015, said he was ready to do what it took to ease the caseload on serving judges.
He says the work never ends.
“It’s like the bottles coming down the gravity feed in the supermarket cold refrigerator,” Mr Giles said.
“Currently between 20 and 25 retired judicial officers from both the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court have volunteered to assist.
“There’ll be a list and then the parties and their lawyers, if they wish, can select from that list.
“The whole objective is to get rid of or reduce, by as many as possible, that long list.”
Chris White, the president of the Hunter Valley Family Law Practitioners Association, said he had mixed feelings about judges coming out of retirement.
“While it is ever-pleasing to see the profession ready to step up in that situation, the impact is some of those cases are being dealt with perhaps without the resource and time that is required,” he said.
“On the one hand it is remarkable to think that people in their retirement are coming out to assist a jurisdiction that is broken and is fractured.
“Equally, we have to consider that a bandaid solution.
Federal Circuit Court Chief Justice William Alstergren said the cases would be dealt with as part of what he called a “super callover”, which began at the start of this month.
No replacement for ‘great loss’
In Newcastle there are fears bringing judges out of retirement might not be enough to reduce the lists.
The Newcastle registry has been one judge down since the start of August and caseloads have been skyrocketing.
Family law judges must retire by the age of 70 — a milestone reached by Newcastle judge Janet Terry earlier this month.
Despite the knowledge of her imminent retirement, no replacement was announced.
Mr Coakes said it was critical that she was replaced.
“Judge Terry was a powerhouse and very clear-thinking and she really ploughed through the work,” he said.
“It is of utmost priority and importance to find a replacement for Judge Terry.”
The view is shared by Mr White.
“These have been foreseeable instances where judges have been moved from the registry or, alternatively, have retired,” Mr White said.
“Regrettably, it has taken no pre-emptive action to try to have replacements ready and willing and able to take the workload off those judges who are departing.
“Regrettably, it has just caused considerable impact upon how families work after separation.”
The ABC has sought comment from federal Attorney-General Michaelia Cash.