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Monday, 15 September 2003
Page: 20043

Ms GAMBARO (4:45 PM) —I would like to add to the debate on this motion and the comments by previous speakers. The establishment of a judicial environment sensitive to and capable of dealing with the evolving needs of modern family life has been one of the most important challenges of all court systems. The Australian government has taken great pride in meeting this challenge, particularly with the establishment in 2000 of the Federal Magistrates Court.

In an era of increasing marriage breakdown, changing parental responsibilities and evolving family structures, the Federal Magistrates Service has proved a model of response. It has offered mediated, non-adversarial legal options to families—things that were hardly imaginable even 10 years ago, let alone at the dawn of Australia's judicial system over a century ago. In its three years of operation, the Federal Magistrates Service has proved to be an outstanding success in providing the average person with a simpler, much more humane, less time-consuming and less intimidating alternative to the superior courts. Importantly, it has done a great deal to relieve the tremendous workload of higher courts.

The increasing range and volume of cases directed to the Federal Magistrates Service have demonstrated its vital and expanding role within Australia's judicial system. Over one-half of all migration matters and more than 40 per cent of family law and children's and property applications are now completed by the Federal Magistrates Service. But it is in the area of family law that the Federal Magistrates Service has distinguished itself. Approximately 80 per cent of the court's workload is in the area of family law. One of the greatest successes of the Federal Magistrates Service has been its ability to encourage people embarking on family legal disputes to resolve those disputes through primary dispute resolution rather than through the traditional, much more stressful, adversarial and damaging arena of the higher courts, which all too often become weapons of revenge rather than forums of resolution and conciliation.

The Federal Magistrates Service, through its mediation capabilities, is able to call on a range of means to resolve disputes in order to avoid contested hearings. It has helped to usher in a new era of conciliation, counselling and mediation within our judicial system and it has greatly benefited those using it. The court uses community based counselling and mediation services as well as the increased existing counselling and mediation services of the Family Court and Federal Court, providing a choice that is as wide as possible for clients of the court. The Federal Magistrates Service is currently dealing with about 36 per cent of applications for final orders in family law matters. The Federal Magistrates Service is making a significant contribution to the effective operation of family law in Australia, providing families with a greater range of options for resolving their legal problems as quickly and as cheaply as possible.

The federal government is to be applauded for further extending the benefits of the Federal Magistrates Service with the appointment of two new federal magistrates. In the 2003-04 budget the government allocated funding to the Federal Magistrates Service for these new federal magistrates. The appointments will honour the government's election commitment to appoint two additional magistrates, and that is a very good thing. They will also conduct circuits in various locations, in both rural and regional communities. The service conducted circuit hearings in 21 locations in 2002-03. The appointment of the new federal magistrates will be of great benefit to those rural and regional areas that we have heard other members speak about today.

At a time of increasing social and economic fallout in rural and regional Australia, the benefit can hardly be overestimated. Every day we read reports of drought, the downturn in rural industries and the erosion of rural communities. It is vital to remember that, at the end of the day, these are not just statistics—they translate into individual and sometimes very tragic human stories. Unfortunately, these things result in regional family breakdown, loss and dislocation. By extending the Federal Magistrates Service into rural and regional areas, the federal government is taking a positive step to reduce this human toll and help with what is happening in rural Australia. In particular, it is helping those involved in Family Court matters such as divorce, property disputes and parenting orders, and I commend the government for it. I think this is a very valuable service.

The federal government is to be commended for ensuring that 80 per cent of the current workload of the Federal Magistrates Court is in this family law area. It also includes other areas, such as corporate insolvency and less complex intellectual property matters. Currently there are 19 federal magistrates located in capital cities and major regional centres around Australia, so it is a cheaper and more effective way to resolve disputes. (Time expired)