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Wednesday, 29 March 2006
Page: 188


Mr RUDDOCK (Attorney-General) (11:53 AM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

This bill amends the Trade Practices Act 1974, the Family Law Act 1975, the Federal Court of Australia Act 1976, the Admiralty Act 1988 and the Child Support (Registration and Collection) Act 1988 to confer new jurisdiction on the Federal Magistrates Court.

The Federal Magistrates Court, which commenced hearing cases in July 2000, is intended to provide a quicker, cheaper and simpler option for litigants and to enable both the Federal Court and the Family Court to concentrate on more complex and longer matters.

A review of the Federal Magistrates Court’s first two years of operation was carried out in 2002-03. The review concluded that the court was making a valuable contribution to an improved federal civil justice system.

The review recommended that consideration be given to conferring on the court concurrent jurisdiction with lower level state courts in trade practices matters. It also recommended that the court be given jurisdiction to hear any civil matter remitted from the Federal Court or the Family Court in which the Federal Magistrates Court does not otherwise have jurisdiction. This bill implements those recommendations.

There are many matters that come before Commonwealth courts that are less complex and do not need to be dealt with by superior court judges. The government continues to consider proposals for new jurisdiction that may be appropriate for the Magistrates Court. This bill implements a number of such proposals in addition to those recommended by the review.

The review’s recommendation that the government consider additional trade practices jurisdiction for the Federal Magistrates Court followed the release in August 2001 of a consultation paper issued jointly by the Attorney-General’s Department and the Treasury. The consultation paper included proposals that the Federal Magistrates Court be given additional jurisdiction under the Trade Practices Act.

In March 2004, the Senate Economic References Committee report Effectiveness of the Trade Practices Act 1974 in protecting small business also recommended that the jurisdiction of the Federal Magistrates Court under the Trade Practices Act be extended. The committee believed that the court would provide a more accessible forum for small businesses to take action against companies that engage in unconscionable conduct and parties in breach of prescribed industry codes. In June 2004, the government accepted the recommendation that the Federal Magistrates Court jurisdiction should be extended to enable it to consider proceedings relating to parts IVA and IVB of the Trade Practices Act.

The court currently has some jurisdiction in relation to consumer protection matters under the Trade Practices Act. This bill contains an amendment to extend the court’s consumer protection jurisdiction to pyramid selling claims and claims involving manufacturers and importers of goods. It also confers new jurisdiction in relation to claims about defective goods, unconscionable conduct and contraventions of prescribed industry codes.

The proposed amendments also increase the monetary limit on damages by the Federal Magistrates Court under the Trade Practices Act from $200,000 to $750,000. This will make available to more litigants a simpler and more accessible forum for instituting proceedings.

The Family Court and the Federal Court may already transfer proceedings to the Federal Magistrates Court. However, a proceeding can only be transferred if the Federal Magistrates Court already has jurisdiction in relation to the matter that is the subject of the proceeding to be transferred. The bill allows for the transfer of matters in which the Federal Magistrates Court does not otherwise have jurisdiction. This amendment implements the recommendation of the FMC review which I referred to earlier. The Federal Court and Family Court must continue to have regard to the existing factors they take into account when transferring a proceeding. Those factors include the interests of the administration of justice and the resources of the Federal Magistrates Court. The government expects few matters to be transferred under this new provision. However, the transfer of appropriate matters will ensure that matters are heard in the most appropriate court.

The amendments to the Admiralty Act would confer jurisdiction on the Federal Magistrates Court in relation to all in personam actions under the act—these are actions enforceable against the defendant personally—and confer jurisdiction in rem actions, which are actions enforceable against a ship, freight or cargo, remitted from the Federal Court or a State Supreme Court. This conferral of this jurisdiction will give litigants a simpler and more accessible forum to redress admiralty matters. The jurisdiction is also appropriate for the Federal Magistrates Court as state and territory and lower level courts already possess this jurisdiction.

The Child Support (Registration and Collection) Act allows for an aggrieved person to appeal to the Federal Court against the making of a departure prohibition order. This is an order that essentially prevents a person from departing Australia where they have an outstanding child support liability and certain other conditions are satisfied. The bill confers the same jurisdiction on the Federal Magistrates Court as is currently possessed by the Federal Court. As the Child Support (Registration and Collection) Act already confers jurisdiction on the Federal Magistrates Court in relation to other matters, the proposed amendments merely extend that jurisdiction to include the ability to hear appeals against departure prohibition orders. There are no operational or policy reasons why the court’s jurisdiction should not be so extended, as these appeals do not generally raise any complex factual or legal issues.

The Federal Magistrates Court was established because of the need for a lower level Commonwealth court that could handle less complex federal matters in a more efficient and effective way. As was the case when the Federal Magistrates Court was first established, the government is keen to ensure that all Australians and Australian businesses are provided with suitable access to the justice system according to their needs and within their means. This bill contributes to achieving the goal of a more accessible and flexible justice system.

I commend the bill to the chamber and I table an explanatory memorandum.