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Monday, 3 November 2003
Page: 21842


Mr McClelland asked the Attorney-General, upon notice, on 11 August 2003:

What procedures and practices are being adopted by Federal Courts and Tribunals to meet the needs of clients and litigants from culturally diverse backgrounds.


Mr Ruddock (Attorney-General) —The answer to the honourable member's question is as follows:

The procedures and practices that have been adopted by the federal courts and tribunals in my portfolio to meet the needs of clients and litigants from culturally diverse backgrounds are as follows.

The High Court

The High Court arranges for interpreters to assist self-represented litigants who do not speak English.

The Federal Court

The Federal Court has a range of procedures and practices which aim to meet the needs of clients and litigants from culturally diverse backgrounds. The same procedures and practices apply to the tribunals which receive administrative support from the Court, namely the Australian Competition Tribunal, the Copyright Tribunal, the Defence Force Discipline Appeal Tribunal and the Federal Police Disciplinary Tribunal.

The development and implementation of these procedures and practices is overseen by the Court's Equality and the Law Committee which consists of eight judges including the Chief Justice, along with senior registry officers. The Committee seeks to ensure that the Court's procedures and practices accommodate appropriately the needs of people from culturally diverse backgrounds, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders involved in native title cases, as well as the needs of other groups such as people with disabilities. The Committee meets regularly to review the Court's practices and policies and initiate changes where necessary.

Procedures and practices include the following:

the establishment of a legal assistance scheme under Order 80 of the Federal Court Rules which allows the Court to refer self-represented litigants to a solicitor or barrister for free legal advice or assistance;

the issuing of Practice Note No 15, which imposes an obligation on legal practitioners to provide information to the Court to enable the appropriate treatment of persons coming before it;

the issuing of Practice Note No 16, which deals with the administration of oaths and affirmations in the Court and which imposes an obligation on legal practitioners to give the Court (via the judge's associate) at least 24 hours' notice of any special arrangements that may need to be made by the Court to facilitate the taking of an oath or making of an affirmation by a witness (such as whether the witness has other requirements to facilitate the taking of an oath in accordance with his or her beliefs);

the provision of Court-funded interpreter and translation services to litigants who have little or no understanding of the English language and who are self-represented and do not have financial means to purchase the services, or who are represented but have an exemption from, or have been granted a waiver of, the fees under the Federal Court of Australia Regulations;

the establishment of a scheme in the New South Wales Registry of the Court, whereby the Department of Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs pays for legal advice to be given to self-represented migration applicants;

the establishment of a register of Court staff with language skills who may be able to assist litigants who have little or no knowledge of English when dealing with the registry;

the publication of information sheets in a range of community languages, including a number of brochures which can be downloaded from the Court's home page at www.fedcourt.gov.au;

the availability on the Court's home page of information (including links) to free government and Internet translation services, as well as such services listed in telephone directories;

the provision of training to staff on dealing with people from culturally diverse backgrounds;

the conduct of judicial information programs, and the availability in the Court's libraries of relevant publications, on issues concerning litigants and witnesses from culturally diverse backgrounds and on the use of interpreters and translators;

the accommodation of regular visits by judges from South-East Asia, which has helped raise the awareness of judges of the Federal Court of judicial and local cultures in that area.

The Family Court

The Family Court of Australia has a long history of examining its procedures and practices to consider their impact on the needs of clients from culturally diverse backgrounds.

In 1999 the Chief Justice established a National Cultural Diversity Committee. At its first meeting the Committee decided that it was important that the Court review its progress in the area against benchmarks set by Government policy and best practice in a wide range of organisations. It was also agreed that the Court needed to establish a framework for developing strategies to improve the Court's services to culturally diverse Australians. It was decided to conduct a comprehensive audit of the Court's practices and procedures.

The audit conducted in 2000 included extensive consultations across all levels and functions of the Court. In addition, focus groups were conducted with community workers and representatives from immigrant and refugee communities in relation to their experiences and perceptions of the Court.

The project provided the Court with an opportunity to continue to enhance its service delivery to diverse client groups. The process further enabled the Court to identify the strengths and weaknesses of existing initiatives and areas for improvement to strengthen the Court's efficiency and effectiveness in providing quality services to its diverse client base.

Procedures and practices include the following:

the provision of free interpreter services;

the Indigenous Family Consultants Program;

the Interpreter Assisted Divorce List (Sydney); and

the employment of part-time Cultural Liaison Officers.

The Court is also implementing other initiatives. Key achievements to date are as follows:

From 31 March 2004 the Court will collect on a voluntary basis, on all its forms, key data on cultural background as well as Indigenous status. This will allow the Court for the first time to be able to gain a comprehensive understanding of the cultural background of its clients. Extensive diversity training will be provided to staff in preparation for this data collection.

Judges have a full day program on cultural diversity as part of a development program provided annually.

In April 2003 a major consultation was co-hosted by the Court and the Australian Multicultural Foundation. Representatives of every State and Territory government multicultural office attended the meeting as well as the CEO and Chairperson of the Federation of Ethnic Communities' Councils of Australia and representatives of the Department of Immigration and Indigenous and Multicultural Affairs and the Attorney General's Department. From the meeting came a range of suggestions for further partnerships and joint initiatives in the interests of improving services to culturally diverse clients. Each Family Court Registry is developing a relationship with the local relevant representatives of the State and Territory multicultural bodies so that there can be direct feedback on ways to improve the services for culturally diverse clients.

Court publications have been reviewed and revised to take in the recommendations of the 2000 audit referred to above.

The Federal Magistrates Court (FMC)

Procedures and practices include the following:

The services of an interpreter may be authorised for clients:

(a) attending a primary dispute resolution event; or

(b) attending a defended court hearing.

Interpreters may also be authorised in respect of a witness.

The FMC provides access to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family consultants in the Northern Territory and far North Queensland. The consultants are Indigenous people who are well known and respected members of their local communities. Family consultants work with mediators to ensure that Indigenous families are able to effectively access and use the FMC's mediation service.

Family consultants have a national role in advising the FMC in respect of servicing the needs of Indigenous families. The consultants cannot give legal advice but can assist in:

(a) providing clients with information about the FMC;

(b) assisting Indigenous clients in telling their story to FMC staff;

(c) educating FMC staff about Indigenous culture and Indigenous families;

(d) assisting the FMC in responding to the needs of Indigenous clients;

(e) providing support to Indigenous clients where appropriate;

(f) providing information regarding local services and making referrals to other agencies as appropriate.

The FMC also engages community based providers of primary dispute resolution services under contractual arrangements. A tender requirement was a strong, clear and sustained client focus. Agencies had to demonstrate that they were committed to ensuring sensitivity and accessibility to any people who face a real or perceived barrier to receiving assistance, whether on the basis of race, creed, language or ethnic background, gender, disability, age, locality, socio-economic disadvantage, sexual preference or other unjustifiable basis. Where a language barrier exists for primary dispute resolution clients or in relation to the preparation of a family report, the FMC will provide an interpreter.

The Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT)

Procedures and practices include the following:

Staff and members of the AAT are trained in cultural awareness, for example at client service officer conferences, as well as at registry training sessions. Cultural awareness is also a component of on-the-job induction training for new employees.

On-the-spot phone interpreter services are available at registry counters to assist applicants when required. Follow up appointments with interpreters may be made in cases where specialised or specific assistance is required.

Where AAT staff identify that applicants have special needs during client contact calls, for example, as part of the AAT's Outreach program for self-represented applicants, these needs are considered when listing matters for conferences or hearings.

Brochures on AAT procedures and a video on `Getting Decisions Right' are available in many languages.

The Application for Review of Decision form asks applicants if they require an interpreter to assist them. Any request for language assistance is noted on the applicant's file in the case management system and is taken into account when the applicant's matter is listed for hearing.

The AAT will provide free-of-cost interpreters for applicants as required.

The AAT recognises different religious backgrounds and registries have copies of various religious texts available for the swearing of oaths.

The National Native Title Tribunal (NNTT)

The NNTT has a diverse client group which includes claimants from different Indigenous cultures, native title representative bodies, State, federal and local governments and other organisations or individuals with an interest in land or waters.

Procedures and practices include the following:

The NNTT's approach to mediation recognises the particular social and cultural features of multi-party native title mediation, including the customary and cultural concerns of Indigenous people. These cross-cultural considerations are managed within mediations including the initial design of each mediation process. Information relating to these mediation practices is documented in the Guide to Mediation and Agreement-making under the Native Title Act, which is available at www.nntt.gov.au.

The NNTT's practice when performing its arbitration function includes:

a direction that anyone who wishes to use an interpreter should inform the Tribunal;

hearings undertaken `on country' where requested for future act determination inquiries. The Tribunal issues protocols for the guidance of all parties for these hearings to ensure broad understanding of the process;

where appropriate, orders can be made to accept restricted evidence based on customary concerns of Indigenous people, eg the Tribunal may close a hearing at the request of one of the parties.

These procedures are publicly available from the Guide to Future Act Decisions at www.nntt.gov.au.

The Registrar is obliged to give notice to the public of applications relating to native title in accordance with the Native Title Act, including notice in a `special interest publication' with Indigenous readership and circulation in the geographical area of the application. In addition, the Registrar also gives notice through other media, including regional and Indigenous radio.