An unforeseen change to sittings of the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia in the North-West of Tasmania is expected to have an immediate impact on access to justice for "vulnerable" communities.
A letter sent by Launceston FCFCOA Judge Marcus Turnbull, viewed by The Examiner, was sent to members of the legal fraternity on Tuesday.
He wrote the court would be no longer able to use Magistrates Court and Supreme Court facilities in Burnie and Devonport, with future sittings expected to be listed in Launceston.
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Judge Turnbull wrote the changes would take effect from November 12, but October 4 and November 8 sittings would remain in Burnie.
"We will continue to search for any solutions to be able to service the North-West Coast region of Tasmania and acknowledge the many difficulties clients and solicitors alike will have to endure in having to travel to Launceston," he wrote.
A spokesperson for the state Justice Department said the changes had been made to facilitate stat Supreme Court Justice Tamara Jago.
They said the state courts had advised the federal court they would no longer be able to use the facilities. When asked what alternative option there would be for the FCFCOA, the spokesperson said the inquiry should be directed to the federal courts.
Federal Attorney-General Michaelia Cash was contacted for comment, but had not responded by the deadline.
Tasmanian Aboriginal Legal Service chief executive Tracey Dillon said she expected the changes would have an immediate impact on access to justice for clients seeking legal aid in Smithton and Burnie.
"I would expect this will have an immediate impact and it will mean if you can't get to court then things will be overturned. This will impact our service, particularly given we're dealing with Aboriginal people," she said.
"We've got clients who will need to drive from Smithton or Burnie who may not have the resources to do so.
"This will disadvantage us because we work in a vulnerable space."
Mrs Dillon said 25 per cent of TALS's clients were reaching out from Smithton, and the number had been steadily increasing.
She said a number of family court issues required face-to-face mediation, and the loss of the North-West facilities would make that impossible in some cases.
The announcement mentioned an alternative for service provision would be sought at the in-development Mooreville Road facility in Burnie. Mrs Dillon said the need for the facility was now "urgent".
Women's Legal Service Tasmania, which operates out of Burnie and Launceston, also expected clients to be impacted by the changes.
"This raises access to justice issues for many of our clients who don't need additional barriers to access justice," chief executive Yvette Cehtel said.
It's hard enough to seek assistance without having to travel to Launceston for court appearances.WLST chief executive Yvette Cehtel
Ms Cehtel said she expected the changes would result in an increase in sittings being conducted digitally, but expressed concern that vulnerable clients would not have the capability to attend in that capacity.
"We can't assume all clients have access to technology to facilitate their participation remotely," she said.
Neither TALS or WLST had been consulted prior to the announcement, which both Mrs Dillon and Ms Cehtel said was concerning.
The changes also came as a surprise to the Law Society of Tasmania, and president Trevor McKenna said he was "troubled" to learn of the move.
"The Society is concerned about the impact this sudden change will have on litigants including the obvious (added) burden placed on those living in Burnie or those who, prior to this change, had to travel to Burnie to access the court," he said.
Although many court events occur by electronic means the impact on all litigants cannot be understated.Law Society of Tasmania president Trevor McKenna
"This is especially so for those litigants who, for social or economic reasons, may not have access to their own private transport and who are dependent on limited public transport.
"Technology isn't necessarily the cure to this sudden problem because those same court users often do not have the benefit of up-to-date technology sufficient to connect them to the court."
A number of FCFCOA cases in Burnie and the North-West are assisted by Tasmania Legal Aid, but the organisation chose not to comment on how the changes might impact its clients.
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