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Tuesday, 17 March 1987
Page: 926

Mr LIONEL BOWEN (Attorney-General)(5.35) —Let me say at the outset that at no stage was it thought that we would try to transfer taxation matters to the Federal Court of Australia because it might give us more favourable decisions. I do not think that that is the issue. It never has been. It is a very reputable court.

Mr Spender —It is. It is highly reputable. It has not been suggested otherwise.

Mr LIONEL BOWEN —No, but an influence might be suggested when we are trying to regularise this matter of cross-vesting by giving virtually exclusive jurisdiction in a number of areas. Let us get to the issue that has arisen. I make the point that this is no criticism of the Commissioner of Taxation and that obviously we have a new lease of life in dealing with cases. For example, in 1984-85, 351 cases were sent to the supreme courts.

Mr Spender —All supreme courts or the Supreme Court of New South Wales?

Mr LIONEL BOWEN —They went to all the supreme courts. The honourable member might just take note that in 1985-86 we sent 3,528 cases and in the period from July 1986 to 7 January this year 627 were sent. We understand that the Commissioner wishes to send another 4,000 cases to the supreme courts. There are not 30,000 cases as the honourable member for Lowe (Mr Maher) said-that is well above the actual position-but the honourable member will notice a 1,000 per cent increase in the number of cases between 1985-86 against 1984-85.

When we drafted the Jurisdiction of Courts (Cross-vesting) Bill, we had these matters remaining in the State courts. That Bill was sent to the Law Council of Australia. I acknowledge that it would not be aware of the requests made by State Attorneys-General to take over these matters as they could not deal with them. That explains the amendments we have been moving today. I have only just been handed the Law Council's letter. I acknowledge and appreciate the fact that the honourable gentleman was kind enough to read it out to me. I wonder what the Council would say if it knew that this is the position. Both the Victorian and New South Wales Attorneys and their courts have expressed concern about the increase in tax referrals to their supreme courts and the large work load which will remain with State courts because of what is deemed to be a cut-off date.

The New South Wales Attorney-General has written to me about the burdens being placed on the New South Wales Supreme Court and has urged an amendment to the Bill to enable the Supreme Court to transfer pending matters to the Federal Court. We understand that the Victorian Chief Justice has expressed similar views. The New South Wales Supreme Court is I understand not to be filing or listing any new taxation matters. It is understood that the Victorian Supreme Court is not calling over any tax matters. I make that point by way of explanation. In other words, there has been a substantial offloading-if we can put it that way-from the Australian Taxation Office into the court structure. The courts are very busy with a number of other matters in these jurisdictions and have said that they cannot deal with these cases.

I am sure that if the Law Council understood that, it would appreciate the significance behind this amendment. I want to make the point also when talking about the supreme courts and the great work they have done and continue to do in this area, that it must also be remembered that there always were appeals from the supreme courts to the Federal Court. It is not as though the Federal Court has not had any interest in these matters. This is a little wide of the mark but I want to say that we are also following the Administrative Review Council's recommendation that cases which have been the subject of appeal against the Tax Commissioner's decision be taken over from the Taxation boards of review. They are going to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. We have to take over 90,000 cases, so honourable members can see that a lot of taxpayers have views about the Taxation Commissioner's interpretation of the law. It might be appropriate if one day we could all sit down in this Parliament and devise a much simpler taxation law. It would be much more effective. I think that I could find ways to do it very quickly, but whether anybody would agree is another matter.

Mr Peacock —You would not call another summit.

Mr LIONEL BOWEN —We would not have another summit; we have had our quota. The issue at the moment is that if there are 90,000 cases before the Taxation boards of review and in this area there are many thousands of cases, the courts cannot be expected suddenly to say that this is what they will do. For that reason I know that I will have difficulty giving enough resources to the Federal Court. Resources will have to be made available. It is not much good giving resources to the Taxation Commissioner so that he then gives us all the cases if we do not get additional resources. The amount of revenue involved in this matter is not insignificant. I am told that it is in the vicinity of $900m. So, there are substantial aspects that concern everybody; but I make the point that I appreciate what the honourable gentleman has said. If the Law Council of Australia now realises the position that the State courts are being faced with and that because of the request of the courts themselves and the requests of their Attorneys-General we are taking the matters over, I am sure that its objections will be withdrawn.