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Wednesday, 6 February 2013
Page: 330

Mr NEUMANN (Blair) (12:53): The federal Labor government has made a commitment to improve administrative outcomes, and make sure that justice is more accessible and transparent as it meets Australians. The majority of Australian families who separate do not go anywhere near the Family Court, and even those who go to court in relation to family law matters are more likely to go to the Federal Magistrates Court, yet the Federal Magistrates Court has not quite got the stature and has not received the public recognition that is so thoroughly deserves for the dedication and diligence of those lawyers who are serving as federal magistrates.

What we have done—and it has a long history, as the previous speaker said—is have a look at this issue through the Skehill review. We have also listened to stakeholders—magistrates, judges, lawyers, law societies and bar associations, including Chief Federal Magistrate, John Pascoe AO, on behalf of the court—and asked them to take into consideration the changes that we wanted to make.

The Federal Magistrates Court, as a court, has much jurisdiction and it has grown imperialistically since it was created by the Howard coalition government.

In many ways it is a court that was created out of frustration, hostility and anger, because the Howard government had a very testy relationship with the then Chief Justice of the Family Court, Alistair Nicholson. I think in large part many of the challenges that the Family Court faces could have been resolved by way of rules, regulations and additional funding by the Howard government, but they chose to go a different way. I am sure that less complex cases could have been dealt with by the Family Court. In fact, that was a process by way of the appointment of judicial registrars and the like which dealt with matters in relation to mediation and also interim hearings in less complex matters. But the Howard coalition government chose to create a federal magistracy.

There are now over 60 federal magistrates around the country and they get paid quite well—a salary well in excess of $300,000. They are, according to the Australian Constitution, judges. That is not recognised. They are robed. I have appeared in hundreds, if not thousands, of cases in the family law jurisdiction before federal magistrates. In my experience they are generally fine lawyers and dedicated servants. They work very hard indeed across the country, and I appreciate the fact that they do travel around the country. Too often we find that Family Court judges in particular are based in urban areas like Brisbane Sydney and Melbourne. But federal magistrates now go to places like Ipswich, where they deal with that jurisdiction more expeditiously, in a more timely fashion, and deal with the matter at less cost to the litigant. I found that particularly in my practice as a lawyer before I was elected to parliament in 2007.

The court's jurisdiction covers a lot of areas. It does not just cover family law. It covers bankruptcy, migration and the like. Indeed, when it was first created it could not deal with what we used to call custody cases; it could only deal with access. Now, federal magistrates' final hearings are dealt with in two days or less, and it certainly costs litigants a lot less if they have a matter dealt with in the Federal Magistrates Court as opposed to, say, the Family Court.

I know that there has been an issue in relation to superannuation, but I will not go down that road. Federal magistrates' income is paid not by way of a 60 per cent pension, as for judges, but by way of a 15.4 per cent contribution. And I know there has been significant litigation in that regard.

The government has responded to the stakeholders and looked at what the two reports have said in relation to this issue—in particular, the Semple review, and the Skehill review—and the outcome is the legislation that was passed in 2012 and now this legislation. These consequential amendments are about making sure that federal magistrates have the title of judge and that there is some continuity in terms of consistency of legislation, particularly the amendments in relation to part 5.3 of the Criminal Code, to reflect the new names and titles. Of course, those consequential amendments were not part of the original bill. But there was consultation in relation to the states and territories and, as a consequence of some intergovernmental agreements concerning counterterrorism, the amendments take place today.

I recognise the importance of this court. Like a magistrates court, it deals with Australians at the grassroots level. Most Australians never see the High Court, the Supreme Court or the District Court. They do not get charged with criminal offences. They do not usually get involved in car accidents or have civil disputes or commercial disputes that require the engagement of a silk or a junior counsel. But they often have situations where they or someone else they deal with has been bankrupted; they have got a claim in bankruptcy because one of their creditors or debtors has been involved in a commercial dispute. They might get involved in court. They might separate and need their dispute in relation to parenting arrangements resolved. There is a very low level of court in that sense.

I do appreciate that people need to show respect, and the idea of the magistrates being called judges does show that respect. I also appreciate the fact that they have taken on the practice of robing, that federal magistrates sit there in a robe. I think that is fine. I am not always comfortable with the idea that senior counsel should wear robes and wigs in jurisdictions—I personally have never favoured that—but I do like the idea that there is respect.

I think the amendment in this legislation—and in the previous legislation—is a good one because having a Federal Circuit Court of Australia clarifies the court's role: it is a court for the regions, not just for the capital cities. I think the recognition that they are judicial officers under chapter III and the fact that this legislation recognises that they are judges—and that the previous legislation recognises the circuit nature of the jurisdiction and the court presiding—is doing the right thing by all Australians. I commend the legislation. I think it is a good piece of legislation. I commend the states and territories for the intergovernmental agreement in relation to 5.3 and the criminal aspects. In that regard, I am very pleased to support this legislation.

Proceedings suspended from 13:01 to 16:01