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Wednesday, 26 September 2001
Page: 31477

Mr PYNE (12:02 PM) —Streamlining the legal system, and in particular the court process, has been a key goal for the coalition government. When the coalition government were elected a little over five years ago, we were concerned by the pressures placed on the legal system, particularly in the area of family law. Unacceptable delays, costly litigation and unnecessary formalities were placing a great strain on the parties to the proceedings as well as on the Family Court. The coalition government recognised that there was a need to reform the legal system.

We responded by introducing the Federal Magistrates Service to share jurisdiction with the Federal Court in family law, administrative law, administrative appeals, bankruptcy, human rights and consumer protection matters. The service began hearing cases on 3 July 2000 and it has been an unqualified success, with many thousands of Australians benefiting from its cheaper, simpler and faster court services. The bulk of the work of the Federal Magistrates Service has been in the area of family law. The central tenet of the coalition government's approach to family law issues is to treat the interests of children of the relationship as paramount. In many situations, that approach is best served by reducing the stress and pressure that their parents may be experiencing as a result of the separation process.

The coalition has made family orientated policies a cornerstone of its government. They are policies that are not only supportive of families; they are polices that help reduce some of the financial pressures that individuals in a relationship may experience. In some cases it may be the difference between a relationship surviving or ending. In those unfortunate situations where a relationship does break down, government is obligated to assist those individuals and their children through policies that minimise the emotional and financial costs that often go hand in hand with separation.

It would be foolhardy to suggest that these problems can be completely eliminated. One of the most irresponsible things a member of parliament can do is to build expectations in the community about what can be achieved with policies, particularly with regard to family law. Divorce or separation often come at a high emotional and financial cost. Compounding this is the fact that this usually occurs at a time when separating individuals are least emotionally and financially equipped to deal with the situation, particularly if there are children involved. That is why the Federal Magistrates Service has been such a tremendous success. It provides individuals in the community with greater access to affordable and expeditious justice in circumstances where it is practical to use this new service. This streamlined approach to delivering greater access to justice will also remove some of the adversarial element that currently exists in the family law system. It has taken the edge off the adversarial system.

The coalition government now proposes to extend the jurisdiction of the Federal Magistrates Service to reflect the changing workload of the Federal Court. One particular area of the justice system that requires streamlining is migration law. Many matters relating to migration law are of a routine nature and are suitable to be heard by the Federal Magistrates Service. This bill presently before the House amends the Migration Act 1958 to give the Federal Magistrates Service concurrent jurisdiction with the Federal Court in migration matters. The bill also amends the Administrative Decisions (Judicial Review) Act 1977 and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal Act 1975 to remove legislative restrictions on the Federal Magistrates Service hearing migration matters.

The provisions of this bill will allow proceedings involving migration matters to be transferred between the Federal Magistrates Service and the Federal Court. The advantage of this arrangement is that it will allow legal matters to be heard in the most appropriate forum, depending on the complexity of the issue. These arrangements will not affect the number of levels of appeal and review in the migration system as it currently operates. At present, appeals from the Federal Magistrates Service in non-family law matters are heard by the full Federal Court. In appropriate circumstances, the chief justice can determine that a single judge can hear the appeal, but that judge is exercising the appellate jurisdiction of the Federal Court.

Due to an increase in the number of illegal immigrants hoping to seek asylum in Australia, the Federal Court has experienced an increase in its migrant law case load. The increased case load has been brought about, to some extent, by the former Labor government's interpretation of the term `persecution' in defining a refugee from the definition of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the convention on refugees. Labor defined `persecution' differently, and Labor created the circumstances that allowed the courts to define it in a much broader, more uncertain and open-ended manner. That created Australia as a soft target for people smugglers. Although the Howard government have changed Labor's flawed policy so that `persecution' will be defined as an appropriate test of serious harm, delays are still expected to the hearing process which will be streamlined by these amendments.

The Federal Magistrates Service will be able to resolve cases in six months or less, which will dramatically expedite the migration law process for many applicants. This will add some confidence to the process that currently leaves many applicants uncertain of their future for lengthy periods of time. Allowing the Federal Magistrates Service to extend its jurisdiction to hear migration matters will lend itself to greater efficiency and disposition of these cases. The Federal Magistrates Service has been one of the government's best initiatives in the administration of the legal system. It is delivering real outcomes for Australians who want access to justice. I know that this initiative is helping people in my home state of South Australia, including many of my constituents, who have appreciated the more efficient delivery of justice and legal outcomes.

To date, much of the work of the Federal Magistrates Service has been in family law, but the widening jurisdiction of the Federal Court in recent years has led to an increase in the number of matters coming before that court. The impact of this situation has resulted in the diversion of judicial resources of the Federal Court from the more complex areas of the law upon which it was intended to focus. Having the Federal Magistrates Service dealing with less complex cases has meant a more efficient utilisation of judicial resources and, just as importantly, less cost for litigants.

I expect the Federal Magistrates Service in South Australia will benefit enormously from the federal government's decision to allocate $76 million for the construction of a new Commonwealth law courts complex for South Australia. Construction on the Commonwealth court complex is scheduled to begin in January next year, with a completion date of December 2003. The new Commonwealth court complex is a long overdue project. For 15 years or more, the Adelaide legal fraternity lobbied the federal government for such a project, and I am delighted to be able to congratulate the Treasurer, the Minister for Finance and Administration and the Attorney-General on finally coming through with the required funds to make sure that Adelaide has the same sorts of facilities as every other capital city on the mainland in the area of the Federal Court, the Family Court and, of course, the High Court.

The new Commonwealth courts building will be built on the Angas Street site of the police headquarters—a traditional eyesore on the Adelaide skyline—which will be demolished. I look forward to the opening of that building so that the current arrangements— the cramped, unsafe conditions and the unhappy situation that the Family Court judges as well as the legal fraternity and the clients of the law firms find themselves in—for the Family Court and the Federal Court can finally end.

I would encourage members of this House to consider extending the scope of the Federal Magistrates Service once the arrangements provided for in this bill are operational. Indeed, I recall the Attorney-General recently informing this House that the Chief Justice of the High Court, the Hon. Murray Gleeson, has acknowledged that the Federal Magistrates Service will play an increasingly important role in the Commonwealth legal system. The Federal Magistrates Service is one of the great achievements of the coalition government and one of the important reforms introduced by the Attorney-General. I congratulate him on its introduction and its continual extension of jurisdiction. I commend the bill to the House and urge the House to reject the amendment moved by the shadow Attorney-General, the member for Barton.