In the mid-1960’s around 10% of all Australian marriages ended in divorce. According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies today that figure has ballooned to around 40%. Relatively little is known about de facto relationships, but their rates of failure are estimated to be even higher. Sadly, marriage breakdown has become a growth industry.
As a busy family lawyer I work daily with families struggling with the traumatic and stressful experience of relationship breakdown, and I know the toll it takes. Like any sensible and responsible lawyer I strive to find workable solutions to help my clients avoid unnecessary conflict, but unfortunately, in the end not all families are able to achieve agreement. When they can’t they often need the guidance and assistance of the Family Court system to help them reach a resolution.
The problem is right now that system is failing them. Forty years after the Family Law Act revolutionised the divorce process in Australia, the family courts are in crisis. Not because the judges and the lawyers aren’t working efficiently, not because the laws or the processes are unworkable, but rather because the current court resources are stretched to their limit, and are struggling to cope with an ever-growing list of cases for adjudication. In Queensland the waiting list for trials in the family jurisdiction are the longest they have ever been. In Brisbane there are currently only 2 Federal Circuit Court judges sitting in the Family Court compared to 15 in Melbourne and 21 in Sydney. Such chronic under-resourcing regularly sees Brisbane judges of the Federal Circuit Court deal with more than 30 family court matters in a day.
Meanwhile the delay occasioned by long waiting-lists prolongs and often exacerbates family disputes, further damaging relationships and placing children in particular at increased risk of emotional distress. The longer children are involved in conflict within the family court system the greater the risk their social and emotional development will be impeded. The harm in some cases is irreparable.
Last month the president of the Queensland Law Society publicly addressed the issue of inadequate resourcing of the Family Court system, and called upon the Federal Attorney-General Mr George Brandis to urgently appoint more judges to help alleviate the problem in Queensland. Mr Brandis, by way of response, announced the appointment of one additional judge to the Family Court in Brisbane.
It’s a start, and every little bit is warmly welcomed. But there is a lot more to be done. It is time for our Government to recognise that family relationships define our community and our culture, and are the single most powerful and valuable influence in our children’s lives. Sadly, from time to time such relationships break down, but when they do we owe to our children, and to ourselves, to do everything we can to ease the pain of a relationship breakdown as quickly and effectively as possible.