By Nicola Berkovic, Legal Affairs Correspondent, The Australian

Courts reject questions over delays and judges

Family Court Chief Justice Will Alstergren said in April that, in some court locations­, more than half of cases were more than a year old. Picture: James Croucher
Family Court Chief Justice Will Alstergren said in April that, in some court locations­, more than half of cases were more than a year old. Picture: James Croucher

Federal courts have refused to revea­l information about long delays­ in getting some cases heard and the performance of judges.

The Family Court of Australia has blocked access to non-identifying information to show just how long parents were waiting in each Family Court loca­tion for a final hearing of their custody dispute­s.

Separately, the Federal Circuit Court has rejected requests for data about two judges, Sandy Street and Sal Vasta, who have repeatedly­ had decisions set aside on appeal for failing to provide a fair hearing.

The court won’t reveal how many cases they’ve had overturned or whether their appeal rates differ from other judges, because­ it refuses to provide any inform­ation about the performance of individual judges.

Family Court Chief Justice Will Alstergren told The Australian in April that, in some court locations­, more than half of cases were more than a year old and 25 per cent were more than three years old.

However, when The Australian tried to obtain a list of hearing dates for each registry (with all names blacked out), along with the dates the cases had begun — so it could determine just how bad those delays were — the court pulled down its shutters.

Media companies this week have highlighted a growing culture ­of government secrecy.

Transparency International Australia chief executive Serena Lillywhite said trust and confid­ence in government was “at an all-time low” and the right to access information was a key element of a functioning democracy.

Ms Lillywhite said the case had never been stronger to improv­e protections for whistleblowers, to expose misconduct and wrong­doing. “We need to have an open and transparent and accountable government, including their agencies, and that … applies to the courts as well,” she said.

The Family Court’s freedom of information officer rejected the request for information on court delays, saying any list that could be produced showing filing dates, hearings and the relevant registry “would not be, of itself, a document relating to the management and administration or (sic) registry and office resources”.

“Such a document would be specifically related to proceedings within the court,” he said, a month after the request for information was made. “It would not be a docum­ent accessible under the FOI Act. As such, your request must be refused.”

In the Federal Circuit Court, Judge Street has had at least 91 decisions­ overturned since his appoint­ment in 2015. He has been repeatedly found to have dismissed cases without giving proper reasons or without properly en­gaging with litigants’ arguments.

Judge Vasta has been criticised on appeal for his hostility to litig­ants and for making orders that neither party has requested.

After coming under sustained pressure, Chief Justice Alstergren (who is also chief judge of the Federal­ Circuit Court) revealed that both judges were receiving mentoring. However, the court declined to provide details of when the mentoring began and who was providing it.

Both courts’ annual reports, release­d this week, showed they were facing backlogs of more than a year’s worth of cases.

The Federal Circuit Court’s backlog increased last year to 17,478 cases — up from 17,088 the previous year. It received 17,070 applications for final orders in 2018-19, but managed to finalise just 16,683.

The Family Court improved its clearance rate, disposing of more cases than it received last year, for the first time in years. However, it still has a backlog of 2979 cases.

Chief Justice Alstergren said in the annual report that Federal Circuit Court judges were under “relentless” pressure, handling “anywhere between 300 and 500 cases”. It has a target of finalising 90 per cent of cases within a year. However, only 62 per cent of final order applications were disposed of in that time frame.

The Federal Court’s backlog has been increasing. It has a backlog of 3863 matters — up from 2926 in 2014-15.

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