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Thursday, 5 February 2009
Page: 565

Ms LEY (1:05 PM) —The Federal Justice System Amendment (Efficiency Measures) Bill (No. 1) 2008 contains a range of measures intended to improve the efficiency of the federal court system. The measures include: introduction of a power to refer all or part of a proceeding in the Federal Court to a referee for report; amendment of the Federal Court of Australia Act to permit a single judge to make interlocutory orders in proceedings that would otherwise be heard by a full court; amendment of the International Arbitration Act 1974 to confer jurisdiction on the Federal Court, concurrent with state and territory supreme courts, in matters arising under that act; permission for federal courts and tribunals to negotiate and execute leases on their own behalf; authorisation of court officers to take certain security measures in respect of court premises; and amendment of the Family Law Act to strengthen the enforceability of binding financial agreements—for example, prenuptial agreements.

The opposition considers that these proposals have substantial merit. The power to refer issues to a referee for report is one that already exists in most state jurisdictions. It is particularly important in cases which require detailed examination of financial records or which involve complex technical issues. It has significant potential to reduce the cost and length of litigation. The power to negotiate and execute leases is a necessary component of the self-administration of courts and tribunals. That responsibility previously rested with the now defunct Department of the Arts and Administrative Services. The Attorney-General’s approval is required for purchases over $1 million.

I welcome the proposal to extend the court’s jurisdiction in respect of international arbitration matters. Australia is a centre of excellence in respect of the provision of dispute resolution services and should continue to strengthen its position as the venue of choice for commercial disputes in our region. The Federal Court, with its superb reputation in commercial matters, should be able to play its full part in that process. The amendment in respect of binding financial agreements is a necessary corrective to the decision in Black v Black, which held that strict compliance with all of the technical requirements in the Family Law Act was a precondition to enforceability of the agreement. That decision was widely criticised. The amendment will provide that, provided a party has entered an agreement on the basis of an informed decision, the agreement will not be voided by a mere technicality.

I note that this bill has been referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs for inquiry and report by 17 February. While the opposition may wish to consider any amendments recommended by that report, the bill in its current form has our in-principle support.