A judge took seven years to deliver her decision in a family law dispute involving two special needs children.
News of the delay comes as the Federal Circuit Court faces severe backlogs of more than a year’s worth of family law and migration cases, prompting warnings from lawyers that vulnerable families and judges’ health are being put at risk.
Rockhampton-based Federal Circuit Court judge Anne Demack presided over a trial on September 19 and 20, 2013, to decide who should care for the two children — one autistic and the other with ADHD and mental health problems — and how to divide the family’s property.
The parents separated in 2012, when the children were aged about two and three, soon after the mother had a big Lotto win. The case was reopened in 2018 and 2019. However, it was not until September 21 this year — seven years and one day after the initial trial ended — that Judge Demack delivered her decision.
The parties had written to the court at least five times requesting her judgment and had spent more than $150,000 on legal fees.
The Law Council of Australia, the Judicial Conference of Australia and legal academics have previously called for an independent body that could handle complaints about federal judges.
This is not the first time Judge Demack has come under fire for long delays — The Australian revealed in 2018 that she had two decisions that had been outstanding for four years.
Judge Demack was appointed by former attorney-general George Brandis as the first Federal Circuit Court judge for Rockhampton. Her father Alan Demack was a Family Court judge for two years and a Queensland Supreme Court judge for 22 years.
The Federal Circuit Court’s annual report last week revealed it disposed of just 62 per cent of applications for final orders within 12 months in 2019-20 — well short of its 90 cent target. However, a Federal Circuit Court spokeswoman said the court had been achieving a clearance rate of more than 100 per cent before COVID-19 hit — reducing its backlog. She said it had managed to undertake significant digital transformation and maintain a clearance rate of 85 per cent since then.
The Law Council of Australia, Women’s Legal Services Australia and other legal bodies urged the Morrison government on Friday to abandon its proposal to merge the Family Court and the lower-level Federal Circuit Court.
The legal bodies said judges were facing unsafe workloads and the merger would place families at risk by abolishing the specialist stand-alone Family Court.
However, the Federal Circuit Court spokeswoman said it was “disappointing” the expertise of its judges continued to be “undermined by some”, pointing out that judges who presided over family law matters had on average 25 years’ experience in family law.
Law Council president Pauline Wright said additional funding set aside in the budget for the Federal Circuit Court was “inadequate to address the scale of the present crisis, let alone reverse years of chronic underfunding”.
The government announced an additional $35.7m for the Federal Circuit Court, which will provide for one extra family law judge and three migration judges, and seven new registrars. The Federal Circuit Court spokeswoman said the court acknowledged that its migration workload, which was grown significantly, was a concern — but it was “misleading to conflate migration issues with family law”.