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Thursday, 9 November 2000
Page: 22679

Mr WILLIAMS (Attorney-General) (10:33 AM) —in reply—I thank the member for Menzies for his very useful comments. I thank all those who have spoken on the Jurisdiction of Courts (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill 2000. For a bill that is non-controversial it seems to have generated a lot of debate about matters that are not directly relevant, but, in any event, I thank the members for Barton, Bass, Capricornia and Menzies.

The bill deals with some specific areas of jurisdiction of the Federal Court and Federal Magistrates Service. It will clarify that the Federal Court has jurisdiction with respect to applications under the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977 that are transferred from the Federal Magistrates Service. It will clarify that the Federal Magistrates Service has jurisdiction with respect to applications under the judicial review act that are transferred from the Federal Court and also with respect to matrimonial causes under the Family Law Act 1975 that are transferred from the Family Court. In addition, the bill will clarify that a limitation applies to the amount of damages that the Federal Magistrates Service can award in trade practices matters transferred from the Federal Court.

The members for Barton, Bass and Capricornia have taken the opportunity to raise a range of issues, unrelated to the bill, concerning the Family Court and the Federal Magistrates Service. Before I address those concerns, I would like to say that, while this bill is merely clarificatory in nature, issues concerning the Federal Magistrates Service are very important to the government. That service is an initiative of which I believe we can be justifiably proud, and I welcome the support of the member for Menzies in that regard. Contrary to the rhetoric offered by the opposition, the Federal Magistrates Service is delivering real results to the community. In just a few months of operation, the service is becoming an increasingly important part of the Australian judicial system. To date, in the family law area, over 7,000 applications have been filed with the service. In the non-family law area, over 500 applications have been filed. In addition, several hundred applications have been transferred from the Family Court and the Federal Court to the service.

Contrary to the dire predictions of the opposition, the service is helping Australian families resolve their family break-ups quickly and cheaply. It is giving those in the community who are discriminated against a cost-efficient and time-effective means of challenging those who discriminate against them. Importantly, it has introduced an element of flexibility and variety for the resolution of disputes under Commonwealth law into the Australian judicial system.

While the member for Barton claims the service has been a waste of money, I am sure that those who have been through its doors would disagree. The member for Barton suggested that part of the government's motivation in establishing the service was to deflect public attention from the Family Court. I can assure him this is completely untrue. The government established the Federal Magistrates Service because it is the most efficient way of handling the increasing volume of less complex matters in the Federal Court and the Family Court. Quite simply, there was a need in the community and the Federal Magistrates Service addresses that need. I do not consider providing additional judicial resources to deal with such cases to be a waste of funds, as suggested by the member for Barton.

The member for Barton questioned why the government did not appoint magistrates to the Family and Federal courts rather than establishing the Federal Magistrates Service. As was indicated in the extensive parliamentary debate on the bills to establish the service, the government did consider the possibility of appointing magistrates within the existing courts. There were, in fact, two levels of judges within the Family Court when it was first created. The distinction was quickly lost and the judges are now at the same level. Going back to two levels of judges within the existing court would, in any case, have seriously limited the scope for cultural change and innovation.

The Federal Magistrates Service is developing a new culture, with an emphasis on user-friendly, streamlined procedures. The service is operating in a manner which is as informal as possible while consistent with the discharge of judicial functions. This could not have been achieved by appointing magistrates to the existing federal courts. Indeed, my discussions with members of the profession since the service began operating have further reinforced the importance of this cultural change. The service is making a difference because it is seen as offering an alternative, not merely a lesser level of existing court services.

The member for Barton also queried why the government did not give state magistrates more jurisdiction instead of establishing a new court, suggesting that the government had failed to consider this option. The government considered and rejected the alternative of expanding the family law jurisdiction of state magistrates. The government believed that giving additional jurisdiction to existing state magistrates would be a more expensive option than establishing the Federal Magistrates Service. Complex agreements would have been needed with each state and territory, and additional costs would have been involved in training state magistrates, who would not necessarily have been appointed on the basis of their experience with federal law, and it would not have resulted in a different kind of court service being offered to family law litigants.

The member for Barton mentioned that he thought that practical difficulties would arise between the Federal Magistrates Service, the Federal Court and the Family Court with respect to liaison regarding files and the sharing of premises, libraries and staff. The Federal Magistrates Service was open for business in most locations on 3 July 2000, as planned. Magistrates have been sitting since July in Adelaide, Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, Newcastle, Parramatta, Townsville and Sydney, and on circuit to several regional locations. The service and the Family and Federal Courts have worked closely and cooperatively to ensure that the service was up and running quickly.

The member for Barton referred to an interview in the Financial Review with the Chief Federal Magistrate in which he mentioned that there were some teething problems in integrating the service with the systems of the Federal and Family Courts. I point out that that interview was conducted in June this year, before the service was operational. Several months have passed since then. Administrative arrangements have been successfully negotiated with the Federal and Family Courts. These include arrangements about sharing of accommodation, courtrooms and libraries. I understand that these arrangements are working smoothly and that any teething problems have been resolved. Indeed, I have been impressed by the spirit of cooperation and coordination which has been evident in the way in which the different courts are working together to ensure that litigants are given the smoothest possible access to the different services that the courts offer.

The member for Barton mentioned that cuts have been made to the Family Court's budget and that this may result in some staff losses. The reduction in the Family Court's resources reflects funds transferred to the Federal Magistrates Service, as well as savings from the abolition of wholesale sales tax. It was always intended that some resources would be moved from both the Family Court and the Federal Court to the Federal Magistrates Service, as the service will be doing work that would otherwise be undertaken by the existing courts. The amount transferred from the Family Court includes some resources associated with registrars appointed by the Family Court as an interim measure pending establishment of the Federal Magistrates Service. While some of the funding for those positions has been transferred to the Federal Magistrates Service, the Family Court has also decided to retain some registrar positions. The Family Court is an independent agency responsible for its own administration. No direction has been given, or could be given, on how to achieve efficiencies.

The member for Barton also indicated that he thought there might be problems with potential cuts by the Family Court to regional circuits and queried whether the Federal Magistrates Service would have the resources to fill any gaps in regional circuits which might result. I am advised that the Family Court has recently conducted a review of its existing circuits. As a consequence of the review, I am advised that changes to circuit arrangements have been made in some areas, taking into account factors such as waiting times at the particular locality, the waiting time between circuits, and the nearest Family Court registry. The Federal Magistrates Service is already providing circuits to some regional areas. The Family Court and the service are working closely together to consider the best way of providing circuits to regional areas. For example, the Family Court and the Federal Magistrates Service have already coordinated their circuit arrangements in regional Victoria to ensure that an adequate balance of circuits continues to be provided.

With regard to counselling services, the Family Court has advised that it is examining the potential for providing services in partnership with community organisations and it is consulting with the community on options for the future delivery of those services. This move is being made in recognition by the Family Court that providing a pre-filing counselling service is not its core business. It is moving to community partnerships for such services. The court has advised that it will maintain services wherever possible, particularly in rural and regional areas, but it is exploring how best they can be delivered.

The government provides funding to community organisations for counselling and mediation services in family law matters. The government will continue to work with the Family Court and community organisations to develop a comprehensive approach to the provision of those services. There are many community organisations that have been providing family and child counselling under government funded programs for a number of years. The claim made by the member for Barton that they may lack sufficient expertise to properly carry out such counselling is quite insulting to them and I reject it. The government has more confidence in the skills of specialist counselling services than the opposition seems to have. In the government's view, these are organisations whose counselling staff are both dedicated and qualified to assist families in breakdown. The member for Barton's comments about them do them a grave disservice.

I agree with the member for Barton on one point: it is vital that as many litigants as possible be diverted from the judicial system to resolving their own disputes, particularly in family law. This will continue to be a centrepiece of the government's aim in family law dispute resolution policy, and we will continue to make use of specialists outside the adversarial court system to assist in that process.

The member for Barton stated that he was concerned that the Federal Magistrates Service does not have sufficient resources to provide primary dispute resolution services such as counselling. The claim made by the member for Barton that the service is not offering counselling is totally untrue. In fact, the service is using the primary dispute resolution services of the Family Court. This includes services for counselling and for conciliation.

Additionally, in excess of $1 million over three years has been allocated to the service for primary dispute resolution services provided by community bodies. These arrangements are in addition to funding to be provided to legal aid commissions and directly to community organisations. My department has also been holding discussions with the Federal Magistrates Service about their priorities for the primary dispute resolution—that is, PDR—funding. Further discussions will be held to advance the development of the service and to ensure that it has the resources available to provide PDR services as and when required.

The members for Barton and Capricornia expressed concern about possible cuts to family law services in Rockhampton in particular. As I have said, the Family Court of Australia is an independent agency responsible for its own administration. It is therefore a matter for the Chief Justice to decide how court services are best delivered in regional centres like Rockhampton. I understand that the Federal Magistrates Service has already started conducting circuits to Rockhampton, which would be listed to fit in with the timing of Family Court circuits.

With respect to counselling services, I am also advised that the Family Court is not proposing to withdraw from its responsibilities for counselling services in this area, but is consulting with the community on options for the future delivery of counselling services in Rockhampton. This includes the possibility of providing services in partnership with community organisations. There is no proposal to scale back the level of counselling services available in Rockhampton.

The members for Barton and Capricornia mentioned that the Family Court's registry in Rockhampton had recently been reduced to being open for two days a week when there were no circuits being conducted. I understand that this change was made because there was not sufficient filing or other work to occupy a full-time staff member. I have no doubt that the Family Court will ensure that suitable arrangements are made for the filing of documents and the provision of other services to suit the convenience of practitioners and members of the public in the region.

The member for Bass raised the issue of the sufficiency of family law services in Tasmania. I understand that the resident Family Court judge in Tasmania was unavailable earlier this year but the Family Court had made other arrangements to ensure that matters could still be heard. This included the Chief Justice and other judges sitting in Tasmania. The court also used videoconferencing equipment for some processes such as directions hearings. The resident judge is now back on duty and I understand that he has been hearing cases.

The Federal Magistrates Service will help reduce backlogs in the courts and help ease the workload of the Family Court because it will be able to deal with many matters currently heard by the Family Court. Since the Federal Magistrates Service has been operational, the Family Court and the service have been liaising closely to ensure that Tasmania has received sufficient coverage of family law services. The Federal Magistrates Service is providing services in Tasmania both on circuit and through video and audio conferencing. In fact, I understand that the Chief Federal Magistrate herself has conducted hearings in Launceston and Hobart and will be sitting in Launceston again later this month. I expect to announce the appointment of the federal magistrate to be located in Launceston in the very near future.

I mention again that the amendments contained in the bill are being made purely to clarify the areas of jurisdiction dealt with in the bill for the avoidance of any doubt. The government's advice is that existing judgments of the Federal Magistrates Service in these areas of jurisdiction should be treated as valid and that it is more likely than not that the jurisdiction is already validly conferred. However, the government does not wish there to be any uncertainty about the effectiveness of judgments made in cases that the Federal Magistrates Service has already heard in these areas of jurisdiction. To avoid this, the bill provides that any such judgments made without jurisdiction by the Federal Magistrates Service will have the effect of a valid judgment.

Having supported the establishment of the service in the parliament, the opposition appears to be having second thoughts. The government does not share the opposition's misplaced misgivings about the efficacy of the Federal Magistrates Service. Quite the contrary; the government is extremely pleased with the performance of the service in its first few months of operation. I believe the community is well pleased. I believe the community will be looking to the government to expand the Federal Magistrates Service in the future. Again, I thank members who have contributed to the debate on the bill and I commend the bill to the Main Committee.

Question resolved in the affirmative.

Bill read a second time.

Ordered that the bill be reported to the House without amendment.