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Wednesday, 31 October 2012
Page: 12735

Ms ROXON (GellibrandAttorney-General and Minister for Emergency Management) (09:44): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I am pleased to introduce legislation to implement important reforms to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the Family Court, the Federal Magistrates Court, the Federal Court and the National Native Title Tribunal.

The bill is also an important component of the Gillard government’s wider federal courts reform package, which includes my recent announcement of injecting an additional $38 million in funding across the forward estimates for the federal courts to maintain their services, particularly for regional residents and disadvantaged parties.

This legislation will:

facilitate the transfer of the National Native Title Tribunal’s administrative functions, staff and appropriation to the Federal Court, and

provide for the merger of the administration of the Family Court and the Federal Magistrates Court.

The bill implements recommendations of the review of small and medium agencies in the Attorney-General’s portfolio, completed by Mr Stephen Skehill and released in June 2012, which recommended changes to the operation, structure and administration of agencies in my portfolio.

While the amendments in this bill are largely of a technical and administrative nature, they will allow the courts to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of their administrative structures, and allow court resources to be directed where they matter most: providing services to court users, particularly regional and disadvantaged parties.

This bill implements several Skehill review recommendations relating to the National Native Title Tribunal.

The review recommended both transferring native title mediation functions from the tribunal to the Federal Court and creating corporate efficiencies by removing the tribunal’s classification as a Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997 agency and providing for its financing and staffing through the Federal Court.

The reforms will not only generate savings, but also result in a closer relationship between the agencies and promote more cohesive and timely operation of the native title system.

A preliminary transfer of functions has already allowed the tribunal to focus on its core area of strength—its crucial future acts functions—while the Federal Court, with strong results in the area, has been given control of native title mediation.

This better alignment and allocation of functions builds on the government’s 2009 reforms, which first gave the Federal Court greater involvement in mediation. Those reforms have generated a four-fold increase in the rate of consent determinations, and this means less waiting for claimants and faster certainty for all affected parties.

This bill completes implementation of these reforms by clarifying the agencies’ administrative framework and ensuring that they can work together efficiently.

For example, the bill consolidates the tribunal and Federal Court as a single statutory agency under the Public Service Act 1999. This aligns the staffing and financial responsibilities of the Registrar of the Federal Court, who will now be the head of the consolidated agency for the purposes of both the FMA Act and the Public Service Act. The registrar’s powers are also better defined. These measures provide clarity for agencies and stakeholders.

These reforms also allow the tribunal and Federal Court to work more efficiently. The agencies will now share corporate services related to human resources, finances and information technology. Where possible, staff will work from the same buildings and share the same facilities. The compliance burdens under legislation such as the FMA Act will now also be shared.

The resulting efficiencies of these reforms are expected to generate $19 million in savings over the next four years.

In enabling the tribunal and the court to both operate more efficiently and to achieve better results, these reforms will support the government’s ongoing success in tackling the backlog of outstanding native title claims for the benefit of all stakeholders.

This is why the changes are widely supported by stakeholders, and why we have organised a staged and ordered transition to make sure no matters currently underway will experience any delays.

As noted by Mr Skehill, the effective merging of the administration of the Family Court and the Federal Magistrates Court from November 2008 has been a significant achievement in cooperation between the two courts.

Since 2009, the Family Court and the Federal Magistrates Court have operated with a single chief executive officer. The Chief Executive Officer of the Family Court has also been the acting Chief Executive Officer of the Federal Magistrates Court. The Family Court and the Federal Magistrates Court already share many resources, including staff and facilities.

The amendments for the Family Court and the Federal Magistrates Court in this bill will clarify and formalise existing administrative structures, rather than fundamentally changing the way the courts operate. This is appropriate, as the two courts have cooperated effectively for several years.

I emphasise that the courts will retain their separate and distinct identities, with the Federal Magistrates Court in the process of changing its name to the Federal Circuit Court of Australia, to reflect the growth in its scope, workload and regional work over the past decade.

However, formalising the shared administrative arrangements for the courts will allow them to achieve savings and operate more efficiently.

For example, establishing the courts as a single agency for the purposes of the FMA Act with a single budget appropriation will mean that funds can be shared between the courts as necessary.

This measure will also allow the courts to produce a single set of financial statements for the purpose of satisfying the requirements of the FMA Act, which will eliminate significant duplication of the courts' work.

A range of provisions in the courts' current legislation are not compatible with the courts having a single chief executive officer and operating as a single agency for the purposes of the FMA Act.

This bill amends these provisions and ensures that the courts will be able to work effectively and efficiently under shared administration, unhindered by unnecessary procedural formalities. As such, it is appropriate to conduct this change as efficiently as possible, without creating new and separate legislation to add to the statute book.

We are also in ongoing discussions with both courts to ensure their internal structures meet the needs of both the judiciary and court users.

This bill forms one part of this government's wider federal courts reform package.

As noted earlier, the Gillard government is also putting the courts back on a firmer financial footing, by directing an additional $38 million over four years to the courts. The 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.

Other important aspects of this package of reforms include:

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

As noted already, the renaming of the Federal Magistrates Court as the Federal Circuit Court of Australia, and the renaming of federal magistrates as 'judges';

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

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

It is important that our federal courts and tribunals operate efficiently, are accessible to all parties, and provide effective forums for the resolution of disputes.

The bill enables the National Native Title Tribunal and the Federal Court of Australia to work more closely to achieve better native title outcomes.

And it will formalise the administrative structure that has proved successful for the Family Court and the Federal Magistrates Court since 2009, and will drive further efficiencies for these courts. I commend the bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.