Experts are calling for a significant overhaul of Wagga’s family-law system, which sees distressed parents and children wait an average of 18 months to have their matters resolved.
Legal Aid NSW’s family law director Kylie Beckhouse said families in Wagga have fallen victim to a seriously under-resourced system that is failing to meet the needs of regional Australians.
“There are delays of up to three years between filing and having a matter heard, which is just disastrous for complex parenting matters,” Ms Beckhouse said.
“Matters become more entrenched, conflict becomes even more complicated, and children are just dreadfully traumatised by having to be in limbo as they wait for courts to try resolve matters.
“I'm not blaming judges or the Federal Circuit Court for this – the judges work extremely hard, they make good decisions, but they’re really overworked, and the whole system is completely under-resourced.”
While the average wait-period for a family law matter to be resolved in Wagga is 18 months, that period varies from city to city, leaving families confused as to where they should file their matters.
While most day-to-day matters are heard at Wagga’s main courthouse on Fitzmaurice Street, family court matters are heard in a smaller facility when the Federal Circuit Court sits in Wagga.
Ms Buckhurst highlighted that this smaller facility does not include private meeting rooms or safety rooms.
“In most court registries, there are enough rooms to allow a solicitor to speak to their client in private or to place people with safety concerns in,” Ms Beckhurst said, highlighting that about 50 per cent of family law matters in Wagga also involve allegations of family violence.
“However, Wagga’s (family court facility) has no safety rooms, so if there was a woman who had great concerns about her safety, there’s no special room to keep her safe in.
“There are also no interview rooms, and often people end up having meetings with their solicitors on the main street outside.”
Helen West, the coordinator of Wagga’s Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service, works closely with victims of family violence as they go through the courts.
Ms West said combining excruciatingly long court waiting times with family situation that often involved violence led to a “heartbreaking” result.
“I see the effects of a long court case, and it is extremely hard on everybody, not just one side,” Ms West said.
“The question I would ask is how many solicitors in Wagga actually deal with family law? Because, as far as I know, there aren’t very many who will.”
Ms West agreed Wagga’s facilities needed to accommodate residents with the addition of private meeting rooms, saying there was next to no privacy for families going through legal proceedings.
“They feel like people are listening over their shoulders – I know the solicitors try to keep it private and keep an eye out, but it’s unavoidable,” she said.
“Especially such sensitive matters as children and children in care – you’ve got the anxiety of not having your child, and then you’re down there sitting with umpteen other people who are probably in the same boat.”
While Wagga is no doubt suffering from a significant backlog, this problem has become a reality right around the state, with families in Sydney waiting an average of three years to have their matters resolved.