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Tuesday, 17 March 1987
Page: 835

(Question No. 899)

Senator Zakharov asked the Minister representing the Attorney-General, upon notice, on 14 February 1986:

Can the Attorney-General provide information on what action has been taken in response to the recommendations of the Family Law Council Report 1985, specifically recommendations 1.D. Court Staff, numbers 12 to 17:

``(12) Despite recent increases there still remains serious inadequacies in the staffing of the Family Law Court, particularly in the areas of conciliation involving counsellors and registrars. This continues to result in unnecessary delays and increased expense.

(13) There is also inadequate staff to provide information and assistance to the public.

(14) A regular staff development and training program should be implemented by the Principal Registry on a national basis.

(15) Such training should apply to all levels of staff, and should be on-going, and conducted in conjunction with improved staff development procedures and more effective liaison between staff at various levels of the Court.

(16) Staff should be selected according to their ability to work in a particular role, rather than concentrating on moulding staff to fit particular positions.

(17) The provision of crisis counselling at all times and the provision of a senior orderly/usher in the reception area of all registries to assist with information and advice particularly to litigants in person, are required.''.

Senator Gareth Evans —The Attorney-General has provided the following answer to the honourable senator's question:

Before providing answers to the specific questions asked, I make a general observation in relation to the work of the judges and the staff of the Family Court of Australia. The statistics contained in my Department's annual report for 1985/86 demonstrate that in relation to applications for dissolution of marriage the number of applications has decreased from a high of 39,026 in 1982 to 34,689 in 1985. However in 1986 this figure increased to 36,827. Each of these applications must be heard by a judge of the Family Court and require constant judicial and staff resources.

Apart from dissolution applications, there are substantial numbers of ancillary orders sought from the Court each year. These include orders for access, custody, property settlement, maintenance arrangements and injunctions. These applications have risen in number from 29,737 in 1983 to 34,558 in 1986. Not all of the ancillary applications go before judges of the Court.

Court statistics indicate that in the years 1983 to 1986 the overall settlement rate varied between 90% and 95%. The highest settlement rate is with injunction and maintenance applications where only about 5% of the cases are determined by judges. In custody, access and pro-perty applications, approximately 10% each year are determined by judges. Applications which are settled, still require the substantial use of Court resources. Most settlements are brought about as a result of Order 24 Conferences conducted by Registrars, Deputy Registrars and Counsellors of the Family Court.

Recommendation 12

In mid 1985 basically uniform Case Management procedures (covering all aspects of cases) were introduced in all Registries to ensure that cases progress through the Court as expeditiously as possible and to provide ample opportunity for parties to reach agreement and settle. The full effect of those procedures is yet to be realised. In addition, the parties' costs should be mini-mised from the orderly progression of cases.

The question of staffing levels is kept continually under review. Since the Report was made, the total staff of the court has been increased from 474 in 1984 to 520 in 1986. There has been a change in the structure of the Counselling Service, with the total number of counsellors being increased from 98 in 1984 to 104 in 1986. Likewise, with the introduction of Case Management and the section 37a powers of Registrars, the number of Registrars has increased from 33 in 1984 to 43 in 1986.

The question of staffing cannot be separated from the question of efficiency and effectiveness of the total operation of the court. A Joint Task Force, established early in 1986 by the Attorney-General and the then Acting Chief Judge of the Court, has been examining the methods of dealing with cases which do not settle in the course of the Case Management procedures. In a number of registries, changes in these procedures are being implemented to expedite the disposal of cases by settlement or determination. While it is conceded that the court was quite inadequately staffed in 1983 when this Government came to office, the court cannot expect a continued increase in staff irrespective of workload and the total budgetary resources available to the Commonwealth.

Recommendation 13

The Government accepts the importance of providing adequate information and assistance to the public. The Family Law Council report did not identify in what aspects it considered the information and assistance provided to the public to be inadequate. The staffing resources which can be provided to the Court are limited by the overall budgetary priorities of the Government, and the Court is responsible for the allocation of the staffing resources provided to it.

Recommendations 14 and 15

The Principal Registry conducted professional conferences of Registrars and Directors of Court Counselling in February 1986, a conference for Deputy Registrars in March 1986 and a conference of Registrars, Counsellors and many of the Court Judges in June 1986. In November 1986 several Registrars attended a high level week long course on judicial administration conducted by the Australian Institute of Judicial Administration. Each of these conferences included professional development as a substantial component of the agenda.

In addition to training organised on a nationwide basis, the Court conducts on-going in-house training for Registrars and staff at all levels. Such training is conducted in group or individual sessions as needs arise and resources permit. For example during 1986 all Registrars exercising jurisdiction under section 37a of the Family Law Act have undertaken courses in practical training organised by the Principal Registry. Also Counselling Sections within the various Registries have conducted group professional workshops and Registrars meet regularly for formal exchanges of professional information, experiences and ideas.

The importance placed on specialist training by the Court is reflected in the recent establishment in the Principal Registry of positions for a Deputy Principal Registrar and a Senior Training Officer. These positions will have the responsibility, together with the Principal Registrar, of developing a comprehensive staff development and training program for Court personnel at all levels. Practical workshops for Registrars and Counsellors on a national and regional basis will be featured in this training program.

Recommendation 16

There is some difficulty in understanding the nature of this recommendation. The selection process tries to ensure that persons selected for positions have the ability and capacity to undertake the particular functions that they are required to perform. Specifications drawn up for particular positions necessarily refer to those positions and not to the individual talents of persons applying for them.

Recommendation 17

Counsellors are, and always have been, available to assist litigants in crisis situations in all of the larger Registries and in most of the regional Registries.

Counter officers are always available to provide information and advice of a procedural nature to litigants and others. Registrars in the larger Registries and in a number of regional Registries are also available for this purpose. In some Registries, depending on the experience of the officer concerned, a number of Orderlies also provide advice and assistance of a general nature. However the allocation of a senior Orderly/Usher in each Registry, specifically to provide advice and information to litigants, would have substantial resource implications. In the smaller Registries the one person may perform a number of functions and in some small Registries there is not enough work to justify a full-time senior Orderly/Usher.