In an article from Western Australia on its Family Court claims that families are waiting for an average of two years to have their disputes go to trial and cites that there is a current back log of approximately 600 cases awaiting trial in that Court.
Unfortunately the delay to having a case heard does not include the time it may take to receive a decision from the presiding Judge and have that decision given effect, nor does it take into account the pre-action procedures, which are now mandatory before most cases are filed with the Court.
The total amount of time for cases which require the Court to make a decision appears to be closer to three years from the time the dispute first arises.
Justice Thackray, in a recent judgment, blamed a lack of resources and apologised for “undoubted anxiety and inconvenience caused by the delay in delivering a decision”.
I would like to take a moment to give consideration to the consequences of such a delay:
The statistics of property settlement as a result of the compulsory family dispute resolution need to be seen against a backdrop of the historical property settlement rate of family law disputes before the compulsory family dispute resolution was introduced.
Historically, as I understand it, 85% of all family law disputes were resolved without involving the Court in the decision making process, although the Court did formalise many of these agreements through consent orders. Of the 15% of cases which did get filed in the Family Court only between 2 and 3% required a judge to determine the result. The balance were settled prior to hearing. The situation as identified in Western Australia now has it that because resources have shifted so significantly to settling cases before Court, there are not enough court resources to handle those matters that cannot be agreed.
The proportion of cases settled as a result of family dispute resolution has not increased significantly but leaves the cases using the court system in a dire state. As the old adage goes “justice delayed is justice denied”. Further, it can not seriously be claimed that any proper service has been given to the number of parties which as a result of delay and increased costs simply give up or compromise because their circumstances no longer permit them to live with the uncertainty over a two to three year wait.
In my view a large number of matters settle because of the pressure created by having a court hearing or decision soon approaching. Making sufficient resources available to reduce the hearing back log to approximately nine months from filing a dispute would allow sufficient time for a case to get ready and have ample opportunity to settle without the hardship, financial costs and delay. The economic costs on society of having so many families live in the purgatory of uncertainty would also be reduced.