New Federal Circuit Court Chief Judge Will Alstergren will attempt to turn around the extraordinary delays in the family law system by making better use of the court’s existing resources.
This comes after repeated calls by the legal profession and the courts over many years for more family law judges and resources.
Chief Judge Alstergren told The Australian he was confident the court could “seriously diminish” its backlog of 18,000 family law cases “reasonably quickly”.
He would assess where the court was in six months before determining whether extra family law judges were needed.
“It’s simplistic to say ‘give us more resources’ unless we make sure we’re running it properly,” he said.
However, he will ask for more judges to deal with a huge spike in migration work.
More registrars and family law consultants will be deployed to help families resolve their disputes by mediation and conciliation once they are already in the court system.
Chief Judge Alstergren will also seek to use judges to mediate family law disputes, and wants more property matters referred to private arbitration.
He argues it would be cheaper for litigants to pay a private arbitrator to resolve their disputes quickly than paying legal fees for cases that drag on for many months or years.
“The idea is we can provide people with the opportunity of resolving their disputes even if they’ve been in the system for a long time,” he said.
Sometimes individuals needed a “dignified way” to resolve disputes that had been entrenched, and the “gravitas” of a judge could help a case settle at mediation.
The chief judge recently mediated an $8 million dispute that had been in the system since 2003 and that had been set down for a 10-day hearing. He sat until 8pm to bring the parties together and the case settled the next day.
“Often these cases are intractable because not only is the case emotive but the costs have become so big that people can’t find a way out to try to settle it,” he said.
He believes arbitration could also be useful to resolve parenting disputes.
“I would like to see the legislation amended so we can have arbitration in parenting matters at some stage in the future,” he said.
Chief Judge Alstergren will begin rolling out a new intensive case management approach in Brisbane from June 1, and in other registries from July 1.
He will attempt to get as many matters resolved in six months as possible and after that the cases will be allocated to judges to be dealt with as quickly as possible.
Parties involved in many hundreds of the court’s most intractable disputes have already been called before the court in a bid to clear its backlog of 18,000 family law cases.
Not everyone in the profession appears to share Chief Judge Alstergren’s optimism about the use of call overs to clear the court’s backlog.
Law Council of Australia president Morry Bailes wrote to Family Court Chief Justice John Pascoe to warn that call overs would not solve the court’s problems.