On 1 July this year, the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court of Australia announced an increase in the fees they charge to bring a case to the court. The fee increases were modest, of between $5 and $20 for most items. A divorce now costs $1290.
And why not? The fee you pay is obviously the one part of the system that isn’t broken. The real costs are to society.
These are the costs of getting a judge to a regional area like Lismore in northern NSW, or Wagga Wagga or Dubbo in the west, or even Canberra, where the backlog of cases needing a judge to preside is at an all-time high.
There are costs for parents who do not see their children despite waiting years for a judge to hear their case.
There are costs in paying child support to a parent without access to the children.
There are costs when orders come through enforcing access but the other parent fails to show.
And then there’s the Child Support Agency, a misnomer if ever there was one.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics says 49,032 divorces were granted in Australia in 2017 (1299 in the ACT), an increase of 2,428 (5.0%) from the 46,604 divorces granted in 2016.
So that extra $5-20 definitely adds up.
It also adds to the ‘divorce industry’ that I am reliably told is worth $34 billion a year.
These are for the costs of lawyers who charge at least $300 an hour, for psychological evaluations or $6000 just to get a court transcript of the words used by one parent in an attempt to damage the other.
If the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court were a business, it could easily be listed on the Australian Stock Exchange. It’s just a pity that the only ones with any money to buy shares would be those who feathered their nest in the first place on the misery of others.
I am also reliably told of one parent who has spent $263,000 and is still fighting in the Family Court to regularly see children that were once raised in a loving marriage.
When firefighters found the bodies of a Canberra mother and her two children after a house fire at their Bonner home on the morning of 19 February last year, it was revealed the mother had been due to attend a Family Court hearing that same morning in relation to a child custody matter.
There is the story of Aaron Cockman from Western Australia, whose four children, ex-wife and mother-in-law were shot dead by Aaron’s former father-in-law at the family home near Margaret River on 11 May 2018. When his marriage ended, Aaron hoped for a system of counselling, coaching, mediation and community support. What he got was lawyers and a frightening, unaffordable family court system.
I met Aaron when he came to Canberra last year to lobby for sweeping changes to the family law system. I’ll never forget what he told me: “To say the system is broken would mean it was working to begin with”.
What he said is at the heart of why the Government’s most recent 660-page review into the family law system, the proposal to merge the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court and the latest enquiry are little more than a bandaid on a gaping wound.
The Attorney-General’s Department estimates that these structural reforms will improve the efficiency of the system by up to a third, with the potential to allow up to an extra 8000 cases to be resolved each year. This is a long-awaited step in the right direction.
The issue is not a gender-based one. It is not about angry fathers or vexatious mothers. Indeed, there are many more parents who amicably separate and maintain loving relationships with their children.
But it is littered with loving parents who seek to engage in mediation but find themselves in a system that allows false allegations and even perjury to run rife.
It is why changes in 2008 to the family law system make family dispute resolution a requirement before you can apply to the court for a parenting order.
According to the Attorney-General’s Department, divorces involving children represented 46.9 per cent of all divorces granted in 2016. The number of children involved in divorces totalled 40,202.
The great irony is that the current family law system ultimately hurts the very people it’s designed to protect – the children.