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Monday, 15 September 2003
Page: 20040

Mr NEVILLE (4:35 PM) —I seconded this motion, and I point out that it asks the House to recognise the efficiency of the Federal Magistrates Service in processing law disputes and the measures of comfort it affords families and individuals by bringing their cases to a speedier resolution than would otherwise be possible. I acknowledge and support the thrust of the member for Ryan's motion but I would like to look more closely at the Federal Magistrates Service and the role it plays in Family Court matters. It is no secret that issues surrounding parental separation, custody matters and child support payments have been at the forefront of my concerns for many years. Every one of us in the House today will have heard heartbreaking stories of divorce, child visitation problems and financial hardship—to the point where the government is looking at overhauling the system.

In the three years since its creation, the Federal Magistrates Service has played a major role in smoothing the way for Australian families—which would otherwise have had to go through lengthier and more arduous legal processes—during times of anxiety and distress. I tell the case of the man from Gin Gin who was in my electorate and who used to have to travel to the Federal Court at Parramatta, some 1,000 kilometres away, by hitchhiking and getting lifts on semitrailers, and then appear before two teams of barristers without legal aid. The Federal Magistrates Service goes some way to addressing those sorts of injustices. Although the FMS has jurisdiction in many areas, including administrative law, bankruptcy, unlawful discrimination, consumer protection, privacy law, migration and copyright, it focuses most of its attention on Family Court matters.

While the Federal Magistrates Service shares jurisdiction with the Federal Court and the Family Court in many of these matters, it has developed in its own right to the point where it is now responsible for about 36 per cent of all the applications for final orders in Family Court matters. Over 60 per cent of all applications for maintenance, child support and contravention of orders are delivered directly to the Federal Magistrates Service. I cannot endorse the member for Lowe's cynical view of the FMS. I am sure that this growth is not essentially around migration matters but is more broadly held in the family jurisdiction.

More specifically, from the year 2000 to date the Federal Magistrates Service has received 93,278 family law applications, comprising 1,504 child support applications and 91,744 divorce applications. In that three-year time frame, the number of lodged child support applications has more than trebled—from 204 in 2000-01 to735 in 2002-03. In the same period, divorce applications have grown by 29 per cent—a clear demonstration of the growing demand being placed on the Federal Magistrates Service. Its great value lies in two things: firstly, its ability to lift the burden from the existing Family Court and Federal Court systems; and, secondly, the speedier closure it gives many Australian families. Many citizens simply can neither afford the financial strictures of the Family Court process nor abide its lengthy delays. The Federal Magistrates Service was given a funding boost in 2003-04, with a budget of $4.4 million over four years. Four new magistrates will come on board, lifting its ranks from 19 to 23.

They will carry out services in the capital cities and some regional centres, and circuit hearings will be held throughout rural and regional areas. Whilst circuit hearings and regional courts are based at Launceston, Parramatta, Newcastle and Townsville—they offer fair coverage—I see great merit in basing additional magistrates in smaller provincial centres where permanent and regular circuits can be established. This has been done, with the announcement in May of a dedicated magistrate for south-east Queensland. I would like to see this trend developed further. Through flexible alternatives the Federal Magistrates Service focuses on methods of primary dispute resolution, helping to find workable outcomes to disputes without the necessity of resorting to the legal system. Individuals can be referred to counselling, mediation and conciliation prior to lodging court documents, and these services remain available during the legal processes.

In conclusion, within the Central Queensland region we are fortunate to have two fairly accessible services being delivered by Centacare at Rockhampton and Bundaberg. I commend the work of the councillors in these two centres, particularly Shari Jackson and Neil Crossland. (Time expired)