Chairperson of the Far North Coast Family Law Practicioners Association, Jenny Cook.
Chairperson of the Far North Coast Family Law Practicioners Association, Jenny Cook.

Court between a rock and a hard place

The Family Law Court in Lismore is likely to be closed down and forced to move into the state-run court building in Zadoc Street.

The Family Court specifically deals with child custody matters and property settlements arising from relationship breakdowns. It is federally funded and has been operating from a purpose-built facility on the corner of Molesworth and Woodlark Streets since 1992, but cost cutting in the department means it is likely to be closed down sometime before the end of the year.

Far North Coast Family Law Practitioners Association chair Jenny Cook said they found out about the proposal by “sheer chance” and she and others have been frantically lobbying to have the decision reversed.

“It doesn’t make that much difference to the lawyers, we can work out of anywhere... it just seems such a shame to lose something that is working well,” she said.

The current facility has six conference rooms where family members and their legal representatives are able to meet to try and negotiate a settlement and keep the matter out of court.

“Court day is often the first time all of the stakeholders are in the one place at the one time.”

The building also has three separate areas where people can sit as they are waiting for their case to be heard, which allows warring family members or those with AVOs to be separated from each other.

Ms Cook said on busy list days there was often up to 100 people in the building and if they were forced to move to Zadoc Street, they would have to share the space with hundreds of other people, including those up on violent criminal charges.

“Zadoc Street is a bit like Rumpole of the Bailey. It was built in the 18th century and people find it intimidating... Most people (going to family court) have never been to court before. They don’t know what’s going on, they don’t know if they are going to see their child less at the end of the process. People are stressed already – we don’t need to make it any more stressful for them. People feel safe here. It’s formal, but not overwhelming.”

Ms Cook has met with the regional manager James Cotta, who is based in Brisbane, and written to Page MP Janelle Saffin.

“It seems to be a fait acompli... the Federal Court is saying they can’t support a building like this any longer, it’s no longer policy to have a seperate building and we will have to share state facilities. It’s a way of pooling their pennies, but what about space, privacy, security, interview rooms?

“I don’t see why the service here should be any less than what there is in the cities,” she said.

The Echo was unable to contact James Cotta to get a response.

Janelle Saffin has written to the Attorney General Robert McClelland to argue the case for retaining the dedicated Family Law Court facility on Molesworth Street.

“The Court’s guiding principle of safety appears to have been largely ignored in this proposed relocation,” she said.

To add insult to injury a full time family consultant position also looks likely to be axed.

The position is currently held by Anthony Smith, whose role involves co-ordinating visits to various referral services within the Northern Rivers area, preparing reports for judges and assisting families with the legal process. Mr Smith is soon to resign from the position and the Family Law Practitioners Association believes it will be “reinvented” in Brisbane, with a person assigned to visit Lismore from time to time.

“It would be fair to say that the difficulties which often confront clients of the court in and around Lismore are those of illicit drugs, alcohol, mental illness and isolation because of the lack of public transport. It is often the case that not just one of these factors but a combination of them lends itself to a need for a family consultant who is available on a full-time basis to deal with family crisis... Mr Smith has had the ability to alter arrangements at short notice, follow up by way of phone calls and have a hands on approach to encourage people to attend events in the interests of their children,” Ms Cook wrote in a letter to the Brisbane Registry on February 19.

She has yet to receive a reply.

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