Courts Administration Legislation Amendment Bill 2015 - Second Reading


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (13:15): I, too, support the bill. I want to make a couple of comments as the Chair of the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee, which conducted the inquiry into this. I am pleased to see that the deputy chair of the committee and another committee member, Senator Collins and Senator McKim, have already made comments about this bill before the parliament indicating cross-party support.

The bill would merge the corporate service functions of the Federal Court with those of the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court and bring the courts together as a single administrative entity. The performance, funding and operation of the Federal Court has been considered in several recent reports in the context of smaller, more rational government. That is a goal that the committee was pleased to endorse. The merger of the Family Court, Federal Court and Federal Circuit Court into a single administrative entity will make legislative provision for courts to share corporate services. The entity would also include the National Native Title Tribunal, which is currently within the Federal Court entity.

It is estimated that savings of about $9.4 million over six years would result from the merger, resulting in ongoing annual efficiencies of $5.4 million from this time. These are not big amounts of money, but it is always important to bring forward savings where they can be made. As has been mentioned by other speakers, those savings are going to be, we understand, put back into the administrative arrangements of the courts. So it is one way of giving the courts more funding without calling upon the poor old taxpayer to find more money.

I noticed the CPSU in its submission to the committee argued that, rather than focusing on restructuring the courts, the government needed to address chronic funding shortfalls and provide proper levels of resourcing to courts. That is something that every parliament would like to see happen in every aspect of governance in Australia. But, as I often point out when people say, 'The government should pay,' in fact governments do not have any money. They just use taxpayers' money. So it is not the government that funds these things; it is the individual taxpayers throughout Australia who are always being called upon to contribute more so that we can spend more. Whilst the Australian taxpayer is a very generous person, there is a limit to their generosity. Most taxpayers do not like paying more tax for all of the things that people keep asking the government to fund.

The committee issued a unanimous report welcoming the merger of the courts into a single administrative entity. As I say, the savings arising from the efficiencies are to be reinvested back into the courts. This will leave the courts far better placed to deliver services to litigants.

The committee noted the details relating to the corporate services matters and efficient consultation between the three courts are to be set out in an MOU which will provide for appropriate management of corporate services. The committee encouraged the three courts to continue working expeditiously towards an MOU which will meet the needs and circumstances of all.

There have been concerns raised, I am sure, both to all senators in their electorate capacity and the committee and at estimates about the backlog of cases and how this should be best resolved. I do not want to mention names, places or times that might interfere with privacy or perhaps the outcome of some matters before the courts, but I was recently told of an instance where a 91-year-old litigant had to wait something like 18 months after the hearing of a particular matter before a judgement was delivered. I was many, many years a lawyer myself. I understand that sometimes judges take a while to write their judgements. I understand that in many cases the judiciary are running from one particular trial matter for hearing to another and sometimes do not get the time to deliver or write their judgements as expeditiously as would be hoped for. But it does seem to me there is something wrong with the system when, as I say, after the matter for a 91-year-old litigant had been heard by the court—and I understand the trial was categorised as urgent so that it could be heard early—it took some 18 months to deliver the judgement. This just seems to be wrong. As the Attorney said at estimates, I think, it is a matter not for the Attorney or for the government but for the chief judges and administrative processes within the various courts that determine this. That is not a matter for governments—I agree with the Attorney on that—but it does seem to me that there needs to be some more attention given to the timeliness of the delivering of judgements and reasons, particularly where certain classes of litigants are in a situation where a decision is particularly urgent, such as in the case I mentioned.

Getting back to the committee's investigation of this bill, the committee did suggest that to ensure that the new arrangements are working effectively and the sustainability of the courts' workloads and financial situations is improving the government should have a review of the legislation by the Attorney-General's Department one year after its implementation, in consultation with the three courts. Such a review would allow the department to advise the government if any refinement of the bill or the arrangements was required. So whilst the committee was minded to agree with the bill and to recommend that the bill be passed, the committee did indicate that in its view the department should have a serious look at the arrangements in a year's time just to make sure they were working as they should be. I would expect and hope that the department would do that in any case, but to formalise it the committee has mentioned it in the penultimate paragraph of its report.

I support the bill, and I thank the committee for its consideration of the bill. As always, I thank the secretariat staff, who, on this and every other occasion, do a wonderful job in assisting committee members in understanding the submissions and the issues involved and in assisting the committee in reporting its findings. I also thank the submitters who made submissions to the inquiry. There were only four, and I thank all of those for taking the time to make their thoughts known to the committee.

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