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Tuesday, 11 August 2015
Page: 4975


Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS (New South WalesParliamentary Secretary to the Attorney-General and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Social Services) (16:46): I rise to oppose the disallowance motion relating to the Family Law (Fees) Amendment (2015 Measures No. 1) Regulation 2015. In June the Senate voted to disallow family law fee changes which were intended to commence on 1 July. In doing so, those senators who supported the disallowance acted with gross irresponsibility, and if they do so again today they will be compounding their irresponsibility. The Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court are projecting substantial losses over the forward estimates. The package of measures is necessary to ensure the courts are sustainable by the fourth year of the forward estimates.

The government's budget measure was part of a package to ensure that the courts are in a strong financial position to carry out their fundamental role as the judicial arm of the Commonwealth while ensuring the efficient and effective delivery of their services. The government has considered in their totality all the issues related to court funding. The budget includes measures critical to ensuring that the courts are placed on a sustainable funding footing and meet the streamlining savings election commitment, Senator Lazarus. This includes injecting into the courts an additional $22.5 million over four years to enhance their capacity to provide services in areas such as family law, with $16.6 million to be injected into the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court and $5.9 million into the Federal Court. Injection into each court will remain as per the budget papers for 2015-16, but in the following years it will be adjusted as necessary when the courts become a single administrative body from 1 July 2016.

It also includes $30 million in funding for critical maintenance works for court buildings. This is very important. It also includes merging the back office functions of the Federal Court, the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court to ensure the efficient and effective delivery of shared services. Implementation will commence early in 2015-16 to facilitate formal commencement of the merged entity on 1 July 2016, and it will also include changes to court fees to commence in July 2014.

It is the last of these that Labor, the Greens and the crossbench are seeking to disallow. Of course, without the fee changes there will be almost nothing left for injection back into the courts. This action threatens to undermine the revenue base that is critical to putting the federal courts on a sustainable funding footing. The hypocrisy on the Labor side is amazing. When last in government, those opposite used substantial court fee increases to generate funds for the civil justice system, but with a much lower proportion—

Honourable senators interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Order, senators.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: But with a much lower portion of the additional revenue being returned to the courts. Can I repeat that, Senator Collins, just in case you did not quite hear it the first time. That is: when you were last in government, you used substantial court fee increases—

Senator Jacinta Collins interjecting

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT: Senator Collins, the senator has the right to be heard in silence.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: I did sit there and listen to you in silence, Senator Collins, much against my better judgement. But perhaps I can repeat what I said for you. It is pretty simple: when you were in government you used substantial court fee increases to generate funds for the civil justice system, but with a much lower portion of the additional revenue being returned to the courts. In the 2012-13 budget you increased Federal Court fees from 1 January 2013 to raise a total of $102.4 million over four years, but only $30 million of that additional funding was provided to the federal courts. In the 2012-13 budget you changed court fees from 1 January 2013 to provide additional funding of $30 million over four years to the federal courts. The changes raised a total of $102.4 million over the forward estimates, of which approximately $4.2 million was also allocated to the federal courts for implementation and administration of the fees. Overall, fees in the Federal Court were raised by approximately 29 per cent, on average. As a result, public authorities such as the Australian Taxation Office and publicly-listed companies shifted matters from the Federal Court to the state courts. Consequently, in the 2013 calendar year the Federal Court collected $24.6 million in revenue but in the 2014 calendar year it collected $12.8 million in revenue. Its revenue decreased by 48 per cent.

This is the legacy that those opposite left us. They raised fees, including almost trebling the concessional fees, and they did nothing towards returning the courts to sustainability. In a typical Labor-Greens comedy of errors, the previous government hiked the fees of the Federal Court so much that its business was halved and its fee revenue smashed. The additional fee revenue from the government's family law fee changes is a critical element of the package of court reform measures announced by the government in the 2015-16 budget, including the additional $22.5 million to be injected into the federal courts to enhance their capacity to provide services in key areas such as family law.

Other measures, including merging the court's back office functions, while important, generate insufficient savings to address the court's deficits and to meet the election commitment to streamline savings without accompanying fee increases. Given the structural deficits currently facing the family courts, the only alternatives would be to cut front-line court services, close registries and not replace judges—which would severely undermine access to justice for the Australian community. Dishonestly, the Labor Party and the Greens have characterised these fee increases as impacting on the vulnerable—who, they say, will not be able to afford the new fees. However, fee exemptions, deferrals and waivers will still apply to vulnerable litigants as before. This includes litigants who have been granted legal aid, who are holders of concessional cards, who would be subject to financial hardship by paying a fee, or who have an urgent need to file a document. Can I stress that: the government has left untouched the concessional fee arrangements. I repeat—especially for Senator Lazarus, Senator Wright and Senator Collins: the government has left untouched the concessional fee arrangements. I say that for a third time, in case you did not get it: this means that those facing financial hardship or other difficult circumstances should not be affected by these changes, and those opposite should not be peddling misrepresentations in relation to this—

Opposition senators interjecting

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: You should not be peddling misrepresentations. It is appropriate to seek from court users a greater contribution towards the cost of running the courts, consistent with recommendations of the 2014 Productivity Commission report into access to justice arrangements. However, and I repeat: reduced fees for divorce applications will remain unchanged for vulnerable applicants in both the Family Court and the federal circuit court. Further, registrars have substantial discretion in granting reduced fees and deferred payment arrangements, even where litigants do not qualify for the concessional fees. It is only the actions of this Senate, in voting to disallow the fee regulations, that put these arrangements at risk.

Senator Lazarus interjecting

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Senator Lazarus, what part of that very simple comment did you not understand? Not only have we left untouched the concessional fee arrangements; registrars also have substantial discretion in granting reduced fees and deferred payment arrangements, even where you have litigants who do not qualify for the concessional fees. Not only that but, if the additional funding is not available, the government will have no choice but to consider the other, much less palatable methods of addressing the structural deficit. The Senate, in voting for disallowance, is in effect asking the government to consider registry closures and service reductions. This is a matter for those opposite but no-one will be left under any illusion about whose responsibility it will be.

The PRESIDENT: The question is that the disallowance motion moved by Senator Collins be agreed to.