Push For Family Dispute Settlement
By Tim Pegler
A court battle between the Health and Community Services Department and the former Children of God sect, now known as the Family, may run for more than eight months and cost more than $2.5 million, a Children's Court was told yesterday.
A Children's Court magistrate made the "conservative" estimates as he expressed concern that the Health and Community Services Department may be unwilling to take part in talks aimed at settling the row.
Representatives of the department dismissed this as a "misunderstanding" and said they were always willing to take part in a pre-hearing conference.
The magistrate, who cannot be named, said the appointment of a former chief justice as mediator in a similar hearing involving the sect in New South Wales had resulted in "long and expensive litigation" being avoided.
He said the former Victorian chief magistrate, Mrs Sally Brown, and a senior Children's Court magistrate decided the appointment of a similar conciliator here may lead to a "greater chance of achieving resolution".
The magistrate said the Attorney-General, Mrs Wade, had approved funding for mediation in the Victorian case on the understanding that all parties had agreed to participate.
He said he had since been advised by representatives of children and parents from the sect that the department's secretary, Dr John Paterson, had refused to participate in or allow any staff to join a mediation hearing.
The magistrate said it would give him a "great deal of concern" if this was correct.
Mr Frank Costigan, QC, for the department, said the department would give a mediation hearing its "best shot" at achieving a resolution.
Mr David Grace, for the sect parents, quoted an ABC Radio news item in which Dr Paterson was reported as saying, "we want the Children's Court to hear the case and determine the situation for the children".
Mr Grace said if this attitude was correct a pre-trial hearing had "no hope".
The magistrate estimated that 160 witnesses may be called at the court hearing, which involves care and protection applications for 86 sect children.
He said that, at an average of one witness per day, the case would run 160 days, or about eight months. He estimated legal costs for both sides at about $7700 per day, excluding solicitors' fees.
The magistrate said he thought the real costs of the case, including court and witness costs, may be more than $2.5 million.
He endorsed the idea of a mediation hearing and expected the parties to the case "act appropriately".
A pre-trial hearing is expected to begin on 26 January.