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Thursday, 5 February 2009
Page: 570

Mr SLIPPER (1:29 PM) —For a number of decades after Australia federated we did not really have a federal court system other than the High Court of Australia, and a decision was made to increasingly have federal courts to look after the administration and judgements on federal matters. The Federal Justice System Amendment (Efficiency Measures) Bill (No. 1) 2008 contains a range of measures designed to improve the efficiency of the federal court system. I am one of those who believe that maybe it was not the right decision to create a whole raft of federal courts, and that it would have been better and more efficient for state courts to do what they had done previously and exercise federal jurisdiction where this is possible, with the High Court being the final court of appeal in Australia.

Having said that, I think the horse has bolted. The federal court system is well and truly entrenched and it is therefore incumbent upon elected representatives to make sure that the federal court system works as efficiently as it possibly can—and it is always a work in progress. You have a situation where laws might well be appropriate at the time they were introduced but time moves on. Time waits no man—or woman, I suppose I should say now, Madam Deputy Speaker Burke—and it is necessary to update and relook at the laws. Thus the Federal Justice System Amendment (Efficiency Measures) Bill (No. 1) 2008, in seeking to improve the efficiency of the federal court system, includes a number of measures—one of which is the introduction of a power to refer all or part of a proceeding in the Federal Court to a referee for report. This is eminently sensible. Judges’ time is very valuable, and sometimes a referee is a person with great levels of expertise in an area. Particularly given the situation with the global economic crisis, it is important that disputes, including commercial disputes, are resolved as expeditiously as possible and this measure to permit the referral of all or part of a proceeding in the Federal Court to a referee for report is a positive step forward. It will improve efficiency and no reasonable person could object to this aspect of the bill.

The bill will also amend the Federal Court of Australia Act to permit a single judge to make interlocutory orders in proceedings that would otherwise be heard by a full court. Again, this is an efficiency measure. Again, it is a streamlining measure. It is an opportunity for one judge to do what previously three or more judges were required to do and it makes very sound common sense. The bill also seeks to amend the International Arbitration Act 1974 to confer jurisdiction on the Federal Court concurrent with state and territory supreme courts in matters arising under that act. The bill also permits federal courts and tribunals to negotiate and execute leases on their own behalf—and many of us would ask why that was not possible before. The bill authorises court officers to take certain security measures in respect of court premises and the Family Law Act is also amended to strengthen the enforceability of binding financial agreements—that is, prenuptial agreements—and that matter was dealt with quite substantially by the honourable member for Blair, who spoke previously.

This is one of those bills which is supported by honourable members on both sides of the House. Given the combative nature of our political system there is a perception in the Australian community that everything a government does, the opposition opposes. Yet if one did a survey of legislation passing through the parliament, overwhelmingly most of that legislation would pass with the support of both sides of politics.

This legislation includes amendments to various acts and because it is difficult to get bills on the legislative timetable—and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister would be aware of this—ministers and departments tend to often have omnibus bills to make huge numbers of changes to various bills, because often they have only one bite of the cherry. When they get a bill before the House and get the legislation considered by the parliament, they may as well seek to make whatever changes need to be made in the area of the law being considered.

The referral of matters to a referee for report will be particularly efficient and useful in many cases, including where technical expertise is required, and the Bill’s Digest actually points out in greater depth some of the reasons for these particular changes. It does not matter, I suppose, how good a judge is. No judge can be an expert in all technical aspects of every level of human existence, and that is why the referral to a referee on many occasions can be very positive. The decision to enable single judges to make interlocutory orders will also help to manage cases. It will help to bring litigation to a speedy conclusion with a reduction in delays and, most importantly, a reduction in costs. Schedule 2 of the bill amends the International Arbitration Act to give the Federal Court concurrent jurisdiction with state and territory courts in a range of areas. Again, this legislation will make sure that the Federal Court is able to play its important role, particularly in the area of commercial litigation.

There are a number of other changes, including the one that the member for Blair spent a considerable portion of his contribution outlining. The decision in Black v Black was one which, without wanting to criticise the courts, is difficult to understand and this amendment in the Federal Justice System (Efficiency Measures) Bill (No. 1) 2008 is positive and important. In these difficult economic times it is always necessary to look at the financial impact of legislation. I am advised that this proposed bill will not have any significant financial impact. Along with other members of the Liberal-National opposition, I am very pleased to support this bill. I commend the Attorney-General on introducing this legislation and I trust that it will have a speedy passage through both houses of the Australian parliament.