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Thursday, 20 September 2012
Page: 11361


Ms ROXON (GellibrandAttorney-General and Minister for Emergency Management) (09:01):

I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I am pleased to introduce legislation to rename the Federal Magistrates Court and change the title of Federal Magistrates to better reflect the court’s role in Australia’s judicial system and its extensive regional circuit work.

The Federal Circuit Court of Australia Legislation Amendment Bill will rename the Federal Magistrates Court as the Federal Circuit Court of Australia. It will also change the titles of Chief Federal Magistrate to Chief Judge and Federal Magistrate to Judge.

This bill amends the Federal Magistrates Act 1999 and other legislation that directly affects entitlements of federal magistrates to implement the changes to name and titles and to ensure that the existing arrangements for the court, its judicial officers and personnel can continue to operate as they do currently.

Name to reflect c ourt role

The current name of the Federal Magistrates Court does not adequately capture the vital work undertaken by that court.

When the Federal Magistrates Court commenced operation in 2000, its name reflected the objective that it would provide an affordable and quick avenue to resolve less complex matters as an alternative to litigation in the Federal and Family courts.

Over time the court has experienced an increasing case load and a greater diversity and complexity in the cases coming before it. In 2010-11 alone, the court finalised over 83,000 cases across matters as diverse as family law, migration, bankruptcy and consumer protection law.

From its early days, the court actively pursued ways to provide court services to communities that experienced difficulties in accessing justice—whether that be due to low socio-economic conditions, remoteness or lack of services and facilities.

Since then, the court has remained committed to improving access to court services for people living outside the larger metropolitan areas.

During the last financial year, the court circuited to 33 rural and regional locations and spent the equivalent of approximately 145 weeks (in judicial hours) hearing matters in these areas.

The Gillard Labor government is determined to ensure that the federal court system delivers accessible, equitable and understandable justice.

In this regard, the court continues to meet a clear need in the community for people to be able to access a court service near to where they live and work—in places like Broken Hill and Bundaberg, Mount Gambier and Burnie, not just Sydney and Melbourne.

As the only federal court with a program of regular court circuits, the Federal Circuit Court of Australia is a name particularly well-suited to highlight this important aspect of the court’s role.

Federal Magistrates are also clearly not magistrates in the traditional sense of the word. They are Chapter III judicial officers and their nomenclature is important to ensure the community understands and respects their role in the judicial system.

The new titles of Chief Judge and Judge better reflect Chapter III status and the increasingly complex and difficult work being undertaken by the Court.

Wider court reform package

This retitling of the court forms one part of this government’s wider federal courts reform package.

The Gillard government recently announced that it is putting the courts back on a firmer financial footing by directing an additional $38 million over four years to the Federal, Family, and soon-to-be Federal Circuit courts. This injection of new funds, derived from a change to fee structures, will ensure our courts can continue to deliver key services, including regional circuit work, which are vital for disadvantaged litigants and small businesses.

These fee changes also provide clear price signals to court users that courts should not always be their first port of call. Increases were weighted to major corporations, while reinstating exemptions and waivers for disadvantaged litigants.

The government has made it clear that our courts should cater to the small, one-off litigant as much as the major corporate player who uses the court as a regular part of business. In recognition that litigation can be costly and damaging for small businesses, businesses with fewer than 20 employees will be treated as individuals rather than corporations.

As the Commonwealth is one of the most frequent court users, government agencies will now also pay the corporations rate. The Commonwealth should be leading the way on these changes, so agencies will be encouraged to see if quicker and less formal methods of dispute resolution can be used.

Other important aspects of this package of reforms include:

implementing a transparent complaints process against judicial officers—the legislative framework for which was passed by the House earlier this sitting period;

expanding the diversity judicial appointments, to better reflect the Australian community; and

establishing the Military Court of Australia so that independent justice is available to Australian Defence Force members.

Other features of the bill

In addition to renaming the court and providing for the new titles of Chief Judge and Judge, this bill will:

maintain entitlements currently applying to Federal Magistrates;

provide for styling of Federal Magistrates under their new title;

change statutory position titles, such as the Chief Executive Officer, consequential to the new name of the Court; and

provide for transitional and savings arrangements to ensure continuity of the Federal Magistrates Court and arrangements under which it operates.

The bill does not alter the remuneration or entitlements available to the court’s judicial officers. Salaries and allowances for judicial officers across all federal courts are determined by the independent Remuneration Tribunal and are subject to annual review. In making this name and title change, it is not the government’s intent that the usual range of factors considered by the tribunal in making its determinations would be expanded. The newly titled judges will also remain on the current generous superannuation arrangements. The employer superannuation contribution increased from 13.1 per cent to 15.4 per cent in July last year.

While a name change might appear straightforward to implement, the Commonwealth statute book reflects the expanded jurisdiction of the Federal Magistrates Court and contains extensive references to the court and to federal magistrates.

Consequential amendments affecting these other pieces of Commonwealth legislation will be included in a separate bill to be introduced into the parliament at a later time.

It is then planned for commencement of the two bills to occur concurrently to ensure the changes are implemented consistently and effectively across all relevant legislation.

Consultation

The government has consulted with the federal courts and key legal organisations in selecting the new name for the court and titles for federal magistrates, and is grateful for the input provided by stakeholders, particularly the views and suggestions contributed by the Chief Federal Magistrate, John Pascoe, on behalf of his court.

Conclusion

Australia is indeed well served by a court that continues to provide affordable, accessible and streamlined pathways for people to resolve their disputes.

The unique character and broad reach of the court means it plays a vital part in the federal justice system, and is integral to assisting people in regional communities to access federal court services.

Through this bill, the new name for the court and titles for its judicial officers will serve to recognise and better reflect the court’s role in the Australian judicial system.

It also acts as a concrete demonstration of the government’s renewed constructive relationship with the court, which can only benefit the Australian community.

I commend the bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.