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Thursday, 28 February 2013
Page: 1302

Senator FARRELL (South AustraliaParliamentary Secretary for Sustainability and Urban Water) (13:22): I thank Senator Brandis for his contribution. I would also like to thank the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee for its work in considering this bill and for its report in which it recommended that the bill be passed. This bill is an important step in allowing our justice system to function efficiently and effectively and to ensure that our courts can provide the best service possible.

The review conducted last year by Mr Stephen Skehill into small and medium agencies in the Attorney-General's portfolio, including courts and tribunals, recommended various ways these agencies can function most efficiently. This bill implements specific recommendations from that review. The Family Court, the Federal Magistrates Court—soon to be the Federal Circuit Court—the Federal Court and the National Native Title Tribunal, the NNTT, all play a vital role in Australia’s judicial system. This bill will streamline administrative processes while ensuring that each body retains its distinctive identity and will ensure that the focus of these organisations is on people who need to access justice through the courts' and the tribunals' services.

Schedule 1 of the bill finalises reforms which commenced on 1 July 2012 when the NNTT was consolidated with the Federal Court as a single agency for the purposes of the Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997. At this time the NNTT’s budget appropriation and corporate services, as well as responsibility and resourcing for native title claims mediation and claim related ILUA negotiation assistance, were transferred to the Federal Court. The amendments in this bill finalise these changes by folding the NNTT into the Federal Court for the purposes of the Public Service Act 1999 and by making consequential amendments to the governance, financial and annual reporting framework of the consolidated entity.

The new arrangements are expected to generate $19 million in savings over the next four years by reducing unnecessary duplication and improving administration between the Federal Court and the NNTT. More importantly, however, the arrangements will also better align and allocate functions between the agencies, contributing to the more timely resolution of native title claims. The reforms build on the government’s 2009 reforms, which gave the Federal Court a central role in managing native title claims mediation. Since those reforms the rate of consent determinations has increased almost fourfold.

The move to shared administration between the Family Court and the Federal Magistrates Court was a joint initiative of these courts in November 2008. Since this time the two courts' administration wing has operated very successfully. The success of the shared administration arrangements was recognised and supported by Mr Skehill in his report.

As recognised by the Senate committee, this bill is critical to ensure certainty for these important institutions and it is important that the reforms to formalise arrangements commence swiftly. The Chief Justice of the Family Court and the Chief Federal Magistrate have both noted the importance of providing certainty about their administration arrangements as swiftly as possible. The bill ensures that the courts retain their separate and distinct identities. The head of jurisdiction of each court will still be responsible for managing their own court and the courts will continue to operate as independent chapter 3 courts. The government is very aware that, during consultation on this bill, the Chief Justice and the Chief Federal Magistrate suggested further amendments to their overall courts' structures. This included proposals which may affect the operation of the judicial affairs of the courts, such as creation of a principal registrar position in the Federal Magistrates Court in legislation.

Following public disclosure of the chief’s suggestions, there has been some unjustified criticism that the bill fails to deal with these proposals and that the government has not properly engaged in consultation with the affected courts. As the Chief Justice made clear in media following, she is happy to pursue further amendments at some future point and her main priority is to have these measures in place for the start of the next financial year.

This bill is not some once-in-a-generation opportunity to wide-ranging sorts of reforms to the running of the federal courts. Court reform is an iterative process and the government will consider these proposals in a measured way. There is no need to rush in amendments without fully considering whether they will contribute to court efficiency and independence. To that end, I wish to clarify any misconception the committee senators may have that this would lead to amendments to this specific bill. We are more than willing to consider such amendments for future legislation.

The government’s court reform track record speaks for itself. In addition to the present bill, last year the government introduced bills relating to, firstly, the establishment of a new Military Court of Australia; secondly, changing the name of the Federal Magistrates Court to the Federal Circuit Court of Australia and the title of magistrates to judges; and, thirdly, introducing a new judicial complaints framework. In the difficult financial climate prevailing across much of the world, this government has been one of the very few within Australia and around the world to be able to inject significant additional funding into our courts, $38 million over four years, to ensure that essential court services are not lost to the community. This government is acutely aware of the importance of the courts, their constitutional independence as a separate arm of government and their institutional role in facilitating access to justice to the community in all its forms.

So let me make plain again what this bill is doing. Given the success of the shared administration arrangements over the last four years, it is appropriate that the government formalise it in legislation. The bill does not seek to fundamentally change the way the courts operate but simply allows them to continue these arrangements with greater legal certainty. That the bill achieves this by amending the Family Law Act 1975 in no way affects the relationship and status of the Federal Magistrates Court and the Family Court. The two courts will remain as two separate and independent statutory bodies, fully recognised by court users as separate courts. The merged administration will be clearly identifiable in implementing regulations to the Financial Management and Accountability Regulations 1997.

Those proposed amendments will make it plain that the agency for the merged administration will be known as the Federal Circuit Court and the Family Court of Australia, truly a shared administration.

This legislation has been developed in close consultation with the courts and the NNTT. The government thanks the heads of jurisdiction and the president of the NNTT for their contributions to this bill. The government looks forward to continuing to work closely with them to further improve the operations and, importantly, the experience of users when they interact with the courts and the tribunal. I therefore commend the bill to the Senate.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.