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Thursday, 9 November 2000
Page: 22671

Ms O'BYRNE (9:58 AM) —The Jurisdiction of Courts (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill 2000 seeks to introduce amendments to resolve problems that have occurred with the establishment of the Federal Magistrates Service. It is intended to clarify the jurisdiction of the Federal Court and the Federal Magistrates Service. There has been, as members would be aware, some concern regarding the effectiveness of the conferral of administrative review jurisdiction in proceedings transferred between the two courts.

This bill will give the Federal Court the power to hear applications that are referred to it by the Federal Magistrates Service under the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977. It will also hopefully clarify the power of the Federal Magistrates Service to hear matrimonial causes transferred to it by the Family Court.

In order to clarify issues of effectiveness of judgments in areas of concern highlighted by the Solicitor-General, the bill provides that judgments made without jurisdiction by the Federal Magistrates Service in such matters will have the effect of a valid decision, although I am aware that the shadow Attorney-General has raised some concern about whether or not parliament can validate those decisions in this process.

As members will be aware, the legislation for a federal magistracy was in the House late last year and it received royal assent on 23 December. In January, the Attorney-General announced that a magistrate would be appointed in Launceston, in my electorate. Northern Tasmania—as everyone would undoubtedly be aware—has been without a permanent judge since the retirement of Justice Butler in 1996. The replacement of this judge was promised by the then Liberal member holding my seat. This promise was never fulfilled. Waiting lists in Tasmania are currently running at an unacceptably high rate, with over 100 cases in the north of the state waiting for some kind of judicial assistance. That is 100 families waiting to have their incredibly difficult and personal matters resolved so that they may get on with their lives. The Attorney-General, instead of addressing the delay by replacing our judge or following the recommendations of the Family Law Council, decided to set up this additional layer of jurisdiction, an additional layer that already needs reform in order to operate successfully.

Interviews for the Launceston magistracy position took place at the beginning of the year, with the position due to start on 1 July. On 1 July, a number of appointments were made, but none in Launceston. On 24 July, two other announcements were made for magistrate appointments, bringing the total appointments to 12 out of the promised 16. Again, the Launceston position was not among them. In his press release, the Attorney-General did indicate that the decision on the remaining positions would be made in the near future. It is now November and our magistrate is still not operating. Newspaper reports refer to the decision having been made, but the Attorney-General has still not announced who it is and when they will start work. Other magistrates services in other states have been exercising full jurisdiction since 3 July.

It is not that I believe that the federal magistracy will actually be the salve to our family law court ills in Tasmania. I believe that the resource allocation will be inadequate but, frankly, we are so desperate for judicial assistance in Tasmania that even a magistrate with a part-time family law capacity is better than nothing. But we should expect to get something out of this process. After all, the federal government has expended $27 million to avoid replacing the vacant Family Court judge positions in Australia. The Family Court's budgets have been slashed by some $15.4 million over four years because the Attorney-General believes their workload will be diminished by that amount. That remains to be seen. Indications that I have had are that this funding removal will make the family law court job just that much harder. Caroline Counsel of the Law Institute of Victoria was reported in the Age saying:

The introduction of the federal Magistrate's Court had badly dented family law court funding and the federal government did not understand what it cost to maintain a court charged with the very serious task of involving itself in the most intimate aspects of private life.

The cuts to the Family Court have meant a loss of some 80 jobs. A journalist for the Hobart Mercury actually went to the trouble of doing a calculation based on the transfer of money from the family law court budget to the magistracy compared with that by the Federal Court, and organised a specific time allocation that the magistrate would have to deal with family law cases. The Attorney-General, however, is much more vague and has used terms such as `expected' and `significant' in terms of resource allocation. Either way, the creation of an additional layer of bureaucracy by making the Magistrates Court a completely separate court has created problems, not only in the judicial area but also in the practical area. There are still issues of premises, access to libraries, and staff. We fully expect that, as the court gets into full swing, other administrative issues will emerge. On the judicial level, reports in the Financial Review of June this year said that the Chief Federal Magistrate, Diana Bryant, had already signalled that more magistrates would be needed to deal with the court's anticipated workload.

Access to judicial solutions has not been the only problem that the magistracy has faced. I understand that the federal magistracy will not have the same access to counselling services. Chief Federal Magistrate, Diana Bryant, in the aforementioned interview, also mentioned that she was dealing with the vexed problem of alternative dispute resolution and how to offer it effectively within the budget. Whilst I had understood that the magistracy would have counselling services, it appears that underresourcing might be putting at risk that valuable service. We cannot undervalue the work by Family Court counsellors, who spend time with families in crisis and who can provide appropriate reports to the court. They have proved successful in diminishing the number of cases that still require judicial resolution.

This bill is about facilitating the operation of the federal magistracy. We will obviously support it. However, I am still to be convinced that the government has made appropriate decisions in managing the family law provision issue. An additional level of bureaucracy which leaves both systems underfunded cannot be the most effective resolution. In my electorate of Bass, the failure to appoint a magistrate as even a part-time measure is having a disastrous impact on families. We support this bill to assist in trying to make this system workable, but I continue to condemn the government for its ongoing disregard for the needs of Tasmanian families in crisis.