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Monday, 11 February 2013
Page: 829


Mr SIDEBOTTOM (BraddonParliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry) (18:20): I speak on behalf of the new Attorney-General, the Hon. Mark Dreyfus, whom I would like to congratulate. I thank the four honourable members for their contribution to this debate. While changes to the administrative structures of the federal judicial and tribunal may not capture the imagination in the way some other bills do, it is nevertheless an important piece of legislation—as other speakers have already outlined—to ensure our courts and tribunals function as efficiently as possible. The Family Court, the Federal Magistrates Court—soon to be called the Federal Circuit Court—the Federal Court and the National Native Title Tribunal all play a vital role in Australia's decision-making system. These amendments streamline their administrative processes while ensuring they retain their distinctive identities, and these reforms implement recommendations made by Mr Stephen Skehill in his recent review of all the Attorney-General portfolio's small and medium agencies.

By facilitating the transfer of the Native Title Tribunal's appropriations, staff and some of its administrative functions to the Federal Court and by formalising the merger of the administrations of the Family Court and the Federal Magistrates Court, the government's aim is to ensure the focus of these organisations is on court and tribunal users. In combination with the additional funding of $38 million going to our courts—which the former Attorney-General announced in September—these changes will put our federal courts on a much sounder fiscal footing. Our courts and tribunals will be able to focus much more closely on maintaining and improving services—whether that be regional circuit work, native title mediations, claims determinations and future act activities, finalisation times and registry services.

On behalf of the Attorney-General, I thank the Chief Justices of the Federal and Family Courts, the Chief Federal Magistrate and the President of the NNTT for their assistance and cooperation throughout this process. The Family Court and the Federal Magistrates Court have worked cooperatively since 2009 to combine their administrations, an initiative recognised and supported by Mr Skehill in his report. As the courts' initiative has been successful, the bill's purpose is to clarify and formalise this arrangement, rather than to fundamentally change the way the courts operate. The bill will allow the courts to make significant improvements to their administrative arrangements, while ensuring that courts retain their separate and distinct identities. During the consultation for this particular bill, the Family Court Chief Justice and the Chief Federal Magistrate raised some further potential improvements to the structure and processes of their courts. The government is maintaining an open dialogue with the courts about possible future reforms. It is clear that such reform is an iterative process, and we need to ensure that courts keep pace with the community they serve.

But the government's immediate priority is on reforms that directly benefit court users through efficient, swift and responsive courts. The NNTT changes, which this legislation supports, are more recent but have been conducted in a similarly positive and expeditious manner. Amendments to the Financial Management and Accountability Regulations 1997 that commenced on 1 July 2012 consolidated the NNTT with the Federal Court as a single prescribed agency. At the same time the NNTT's budget appropriation and its corporate services staff were also transferred to the Federal Court. This bill will finalise this implementation process.

These changes are expected to generate $19 million in savings over the next four years by reducing unnecessary duplication across the courts and the NNTT. In the case of the NNTT, the changes enable it to work more closely with the Federal Court, with respect to priorities, reporting and the performance of the complementary and independent functions, ultimately achieving better native title outcomes for all native title stakeholders. The amendments also complement the government's 2009 reforms to the Native Title Act, which gave the Federal Court a central role in managing native title claims. Since those reforms the rate of consent determinations has increased almost fourfold. In discussions on the bill, the heads of jurisdiction and the president of the NNTT recognise the need to progress structural change quickly. This is an important reform, but they understand that it is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The government's and the courts' joint focus is on how to improve functionality and users' experiences when they interact with the courts and the tribunal.

This bill represents an important part of the government's court reform package which includes, amongst other things: implementing the name change from the Federal Magistrates Court to the Federal Circuit Court and retitling magistrates as judges to better reflect the court's role in the federal judicial system; bedding down the judicial complaints framework which was recently passed by parliament to provide a more transparent and understandable way to raise complaints about judicial officers; ensuring the additional $38 million in court funding goes directly to maintaining and improving court services; implementing new court fee levels to better reflect capacity of different litigants to pay, such as higher fees for large corporations and government departments, balanced by the reintroduction of fee waivers and exemptions for disadvantaged litigants; and, to complete, passing legislation to establish the new Military Court of Australia to deal with serious service charges against ADF personnel. I commend the bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.

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