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Thursday, 5 February 2009
Page: 575

Mr McCLELLAND (Attorney-General) (1:51 PM) —in reply—I would like to thank members for their contribution to the debate. The Federal Justice System Amendment (Efficiency Measures) Bill (No. 1) 2008 contains a range of measures which demonstrate the government’s commitment to making the federal courts more flexible, minimising the costs of litigation and improving access to the justice system for all Australians. As I said when introducing this bill, court efficiency is important if we are to ensure that the cost of justice remains proportionate to the relief being sought. The measures in this bill are consistent with the government’s longstanding commitment to measures to improve access to justice. The government is taking action including addressing the cost of justice. There is a broad range of work for further reforms in this area. This includes working with the federal courts to develop enhanced case management powers and asking the National Alternative Dispute Resolution Advisory Council to report on strategies to ensure greater use of appropriate alternative dispute resolution options, both as an alternative to civil proceedings and also during the proceedings with a view to resolving the issues in dispute.

I note that this morning the Senate referred to the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs a wide range of matters relating to the justice system. This unfocused, sprawling inquiry is both unnecessary and a highly dubious use of Senate time and public resources. The government has already taken action in the vast majority of proposed areas for inquiry, including consulting with all interested stakeholders, including the courts and the profession and also consumers of legal services. While the government is taking decisive action to promote access to justice and ensuring public confidence in our justice system, the Greens and the opposition appear content to embark on an inquiry into a rambling grab-bag of issues.

Importantly, further to the government’s commitment to ensuring that the justice system uses public resources with maximum effectiveness to assist people to resolve their disputes, the bill gives the Federal Court greater flexibility in obtaining expert assistance, particularly in complex and technical matters. It empowers the court to refer all or part of the proceedings to an appropriately qualified person for report. We have indicated that that power will be particularly valuable in a number of areas including, for instance, in respect of native title. This procedural flexibility, combined with the referee’s specialist expertise, will allow the referee to quickly get to the core of the technical issues and reduce costs and delays for litigants, and this will enable the court to more effectively and efficiently manage large litigation. Of course, the court is not bound to accept the findings of the referee, and the legal effect of the report is a matter for the court’s discretion.

The bill responds to the decision of the full court of the Family Court of Australia in Black v Black. The bill amends the Family Law Act in particular to limit the technical requirements that people need to meet to enter into prenuptial agreements, while still providing necessary protections to parties, such as the requirement to obtain legal advice. It will restore confidence in the binding nature and enforceability of financial and termination agreements under the Family Law Act.

The bill gives the Federal Court concurrent jurisdiction with state and territory courts for all matters arising under the International Arbitration Act. This increases the choice of forum for litigants and puts the Federal Court in a better position to operate as a regional hub for commercial litigation by developing consistent practice across Australia. To allow the Federal Court to more effectively manage cases and avoid unnecessary delays for litigants, the bill enables a single judge of the court to make an interlocutory order in proceedings that otherwise would be required to be heard before a full bench.

The bill promotes the efficient administration and management of federal courts and tribunals by removing unnecessary and out-of-date restrictions on the heads of the Family Court, Federal Court, Administrative Appeals Tribunal and Native Title Tribunal from acquiring assets in land for the purposes of the Lands Acquisition Act. That will streamline costs and procedures. It also makes it clear to Federal Court officers and also to the public the areas in which authorised officers can exercise power under the Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act in the interests of court security where the Federal Court is sitting on open land or in buildings other than its usual premises. This will have particular application when the Federal Court sits on country, for instance, to hear native title matters, or where a court may move into other temporary premises.

I note the member for Fisher’s view on the federal courts and take this opportunity to pay tribute to the work done by these courts on a wide range of matters. It is my hope that the measures in this bill will enhance the Federal Court’s status as a regional hub for dispute resolution in the Asia-Pacific region.

In conclusion, the amendments in this bill reflect the government’s strong commitment to ensuring that the federal justice system is operating as effectively and as efficiently as possible and is responsive to the needs of litigants. I thank all members who have participated in the debate, and the shadow minister, who has come into the House for this conclusion, and I commend this bill to the House.

Question agreed to.

Bill read a second time.