From the Chief Federal Magistrate

The Federal Magistrates Court has grown over time to become Australia's principal federal trial court. When members of the community seek access to justice in the federal sphere, whether they are in a capital city or rural and regional Australia, they are most likely to file in this court. The Court is among the largest intermediate courts in the country in terms of the number of judges and is - arguably - the leading court in terms of the number of matters disposed of annually. Accordingly, the Court pays close attention to its capacity to meet the needs of users and places a high priority on dealing with matters both fairly and efficiently.

It is pleasing that the future of the Court has been resolved with the Attorney-General's announcement in April 2012 that the proposal to restructure the Court has been abandoned. The Attorney-General noted the important role of the Court in providing access to justice for all Australians, and its position in the hierarchy of federal courts. The Court and its judicial officers will be renamed to reflect its current role. These changes will enhance the Court's role as an intermediate level trial court with jurisdiction across all areas of federal law.

The coming year is likely to see formal merger of the administration of the Court with the administration of the Family Court of Australia (Family Court). Both courts have successfully operated a joint administration for some time which has delivered significant efficiencies and consequent cost savings to Government. The joint administration has also enhanced overall cooperation between the courts at every level. I do not anticipate that this administrative restructure will have any major implications for the way in which the public engages with the Court. The Court will participate in detailed discussions with Government and the Family Court as the blueprint for a joint administration is developed over the coming year.

The Court continues to be highly efficient in its disposal of matters. The clearance rate for final orders was 96 per cent, up from 95 per cent achieved in the preceding financial year. This means that the Court is finalising slightly less of its core trial work than it receives, which inevitably leads to additional strain on the Court's already stretched human and financial resources. It is hoped that the Court will receive further judicial appointments when the Government's budget position improves.

The Court retains its flexibility and capacity to respond to ongoing jurisdictional reform. Changes to the definition of family violence through recent legislation is one example of reform which has impacted on the Court's role. In this respect, I note that the Court has seen the number of notifications of family violence rise threefold over the past five years. The Court has also responded to changes in the scope of judicial review in migration law. Members of the Court handled a large number of applications for review of asylum claims over the past 12 months, a caseload which carried numerous logistical and geographic challenges, for all parties. The Court continues to accrue jurisdiction in diverse areas of federal law with significant increases in both migration and fair work caseloads during the year.

Two new appointments were made to the Court in the past 12 months: Federal Magistrate Ronald Curtain, appointed in Melbourne; and Federal Magistrate Mathew Myers, appointed in Newcastle. These appointments reflect important dimensions of the work of the Court. The first is the consistent rise in the Court's workload, which has increased in every year of the Court's existence. I am conscious of the importance of the Court continuing to dispose of matters in a timely manner and I continue to work with federal magistrates to ensure that case management practices remain sustainable and responsive. Judicial resources are very important in this regard.

The second dimension is the diversity of the communities the Court serves. Federal Magistrate Myers is the first federal judicial appointment of an Indigenous Australian and I am extremely proud that he was appointed to this court. This court has the great privilege of serving a very diverse community and is committed to ensuring access to justice for all Australians. It is an important part of the Court's role to engage with all sectors of the community and where possible to ensure that the Court meets cultural and other specific needs. I am strongly committed to ensuring that over time the judiciary of this court reflects the richness and diversity of modern Australia.

The Court is taking positive steps to improve access for Indigenous Australians especially those in remote areas and a special working group of the Court has been established to examine possible initiatives.

Courts, like all public institutions, continue to feel the impact of reduced public spending. The Court ended the financial year with a deficit of $3.6m - the fifth consecutive year in which the Court has operated at a loss. Further administrative rationalisation, as proposed, is unlikely to relieve any of the financial pressures facing the Court. Budget constraints will make it more difficult for the Court to meet the needs of the public with resources being reduced in the next financial year. The Court is working positively with the Attorney General and her department to ensure that it is able to continue to provide efficient and readily available access for all Australians to the federal justice system.

Statistics at a glance

Table 1.1 Filings and finalisations in family law and general federal law

Family law

Filings

Finalisations

 

2011-12

2010-11

2011-12

2010-11

Final orders

17,415

17,515

16,785

16,552

Interim orders

20,332

19,612

20,080

18,841

Divorce applications

46,031

44,964

45,685

45,390

Other

1771

2003

1877

1987

Total family law

85,549

84,094

84,427

82,770

General federal law

Filings

Finalisations

 

2011-12

2010-11

2011-12

2010-11

Bankruptcy

4590

4848

4728

4988

Migration

1464

959

1172

864

Administrative

15

15

12

19

Admiralty

7

4

6

10

Consumer

56

89

63

104

Copyright

44

50

53

49

Human rights

81

94

88

105

Industrial

736

561

665

435

Total general federal law

6993

6620

6787

6574

Developments during 2011-12

Federal courts restructure

The Report of the Strategic Review of Small and Medium Agencies in the Attorney-General's Portfolio (the Skehill Review) was released by the Attorney-General on 8 June 2012 and is available at www.finance.gov.au. The report has recommended a range of practical measures to improve the operation and reduce duplication between federal courts.

The key focus of the work on the federal courts is the efficiency and effectiveness of court administration. The Government has agreed to the key recommendation to improve court administration and collaboration, and identify efficiencies, through a new consultative committee comprising heads of jurisdiction, chief executive officers and other relevant officers, including an observer from the Attorney-General's Department. Similarly, the courts and the Government will work more closely on strategic planning for utilisation of court buildings.

In considering the efficiency and effectiveness of court administration, the Skehill Review found the move to shared administration for the Federal Magistrates Court and the Family Court has been a genuine success. This finding was crucial to the Skehill Review's recommendation that the family law restructure should not proceed. Instead, the Skehill Review recommended, and Government has agreed, that the shared administration arrangement be formalised, together with a formal process to encourage closer cooperation between the federal courts. This will promote clarity and the ongoing role of the Federal Magistrates Court and provide certainty for the future.

The Government will also change the name of the Federal Magistrates Court and title of federal magistrates to better reflect their important role in the judicial system. The Government will begin by consulting with the courts as to what the name of court and the title of federal magistrates should change to before introducing legislation to make the changes.

The Skehill Review recommended a further review be undertaken of the courts' financial viability. While the Government considers that the issue requires further attention, another formal review is not necessary. At 30 June 2012, the Government had commenced working closely with the courts to consider options to address any financial pressures and maintain services. The Government also did not agree with the Skehill Review's view that some aspects of court expenditure should be exempt from the efficiency dividend.

South Australia pilot project

A pilot in South Australia is developing and implementing initiatives to improve collaboration between the federal family law system and the South Australian child protection system.

During 2011-12, stakeholders were trialling initiatives in four key areas:

  • expanding the exercise of current jurisdiction
  • case management and information sharing
  • relationship building, and
  • risk identification and assessment.

The stakeholders include judicial officers from the Federal Magistrates Court, the Family Court, and the Youth Court of SA and representatives from the Family Court, AGD, the SA Attorney-General's Department, the SA Legal Services Commission and Families SA (a division of the Department of Education and Child Development).

By 30 June 2012, stakeholders had met five times since February 2011 and significant progress had been made. The pilot will continue to be monitored to identify whether these initiatives could be implemented nationally.

The Dandenong Project

In early 2010, the Federal Magistrates Court implemented the Dandenong Project (the Project) at the Dandenong Family Law Courts Registry. The aim of the Project was to test a new approach to listing and case management that could contribute to ensuring each court event was constructive while advancing the matter towards resolution.

The Project's implementation was underpinned by ceasing to operate Dandenong as a circuit location and introducing a docket for Dandenong based federal magistrates. Federal magistrates used a triage system of assessment and sought to utilise a wide range of innovative dispute resolution services to encourage the early resolution of matters.

A review commissioned to evaluate and document the Dandenong Project was conducted with funding from the Attorney-General's Department. In recognition of the multiple objectives of the Project, information was gathered through a range of collection methods and sources. Data sources were selected for their reliability, availability and appropriateness.

The findings of the Project suggest that overall, the changes made to case management processes and techniques had a positive impact, with more cases settling earlier without judicial determination and with less court events. This reduced the burden of litigation on parties by reducing legal fees and the time required to resolve a case.

The Project has resulted in an increase in the number of cases that settle with a significant increase in the number of cases that settle early. Forty per cent of all cases in Dandenong settled in two or less court events, the highest early settlement rate across the Federal Magistrates Court.

The triaging of matters and early access to family consultants for child inclusive and child dispute conferences, known as section 11F interventions (s11F) assisted in increasing settlement rates and facilitating the early resolution of matters. Section 11F of the Family Law Act 1975 allows the Court to order parties to attend appointments with family consultants.

The effectiveness of s11F and conciliation conferences in resolving matters is enhanced by (a) not setting a trial date, a practice which focuses parties away from the trial and toward resolution events and (b) conducting those events on a sitting day where lawyers, parties, federal magistrates, family consultants/registrars are all present and focused on finding ways to resolve a dispute.

A 'kiosk' was established with the assistance of the Collaborative Dispute Resolution Services Group to assist the Court and parties in connecting with community support. It aims to promote awareness that alternatives to litigation remain open once court proceedings have commenced. The kiosk delivers a range of benefits including increased awareness of, and access to, services provided by the community sector as well as improving links between those that work in the family law systems. It provides the opportunity for parties to receive a broader range of support and services that cannot be offered by the Court alone.

Overall, Dandenong's performance against standard court performance metrics improved under the Project and Dandenong performed above national averages in many areas. However measures regarding judicial workload raised questions regarding the sustainability of the project.

The full review is located on the Federal Magistrates Court website at www.fmc.gov.au

Review of family violence strategy

The Family Law Legislation Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures) Act 2011, came into effect on 7 June 2012, after the Bill had been passed by Parliament in November 2011.

All forms, publications and the websites were reviewed and updated in light of the legislative changes.

The review of the Court's family violence strategy was not completed during 2011-12 due to the incoming legislative amendments. Work, however, was underway at year's end on a review of the family violence policy to ensure it aligns with the amended legislation.

Melbourne Relocation List Pilot

A Relocation list has been established as a 12 month pilot project for the hearing of certain family law proceedings in Melbourne. This involves applications to vary existing orders or parenting arrangements primarily as a result of a proposed change of residence of a person with primary, majority, or shared care of children.

The Relocation list has been established to meet the needs of children who would be prejudiced if their carers are unable to expeditiously obtain a decision when seeking orders permitting them to change the place of residence of the children, where such a change would result in the parent being unable to comply with existing parenting orders or arrangements. Commonly there is a need for an expeditious determination, such as an offer of employment or a transfer of a place of employment of a parent or another significant person in the life of the parent or child.

Federal Magistrates Hartnett and McGuire have been nominated to conduct the relocation lists that commenced on 16 March 2012. As at 30 June 2012 a total of 31 matters had been placed in the list with an average time to trial of eight weeks. A review of the list will be undertaken progressively with a full review at the end of 12 months to determine its future.

Full details of the pilot can be found on the Courts website at www.fmc.gov.au

Federal Magistrates Court 2010-11 Annual Report wins silver

The Federal Magistrates Court 2010-11 Annual Report (hard copy) was awarded a prestigious 'silver' in the Institute of Public Administration's ACT Annual Report Awards. Each report is scrutinised and judged on stringent criteria for hard copy and online versions. The awards are designed to honour the achievements of public sector work groups, units and teams that produce and table annual reports. The awards test accountability, transparency and quality. Through its annual reports and other means, the courts will continue to strive for excellence and good governance in public sector administration.

Self Represented Litigant Pilot - General Federal Law

The Queensland Public Interest Law Clearing House (QPILCH) Self Representation Pilot Service is an initiative of the Federal Court in conjunction with QPILCH. The Federal Magistrates Court has supported the pilot which extends to assisting parties in the Federal Magistrates Court (Brisbane registry) in bankruptcy and human rights proceedings. The initiative consists of two components: a self-representation service providing discrete task assistance by experienced volunteers co-ordinated by QPILCH; and the provision of Court Network. The pilot is the subject of an independent review.

Outlook for 2012-13

In 2012-13, the following may have an impact on the Court and its delivery of services:

  • budgetary pressures
  • implementation of the recommendations contained in the Skehill Review
  • implementation of changed fees from 1 January 2013, and
  • increasing notifications in respect to allegations of risk.

Joint initiatives of the courts

Throughout 2011-12, the Federal Magistrates Court was involved in a number of joint initiatives. These new and ongoing initiatives included the following:

Commonwealth Courts Portal

The Commonwealth Courts Portal www.comcourts.gov.au was launched in July 2007 as a joint initiative of the Federal Magistrates Court, Family Court and Federal Court. The portal provides free web-based access to information about cases that are before these courts as well as the Family Court of Western Australia. In addition the portal, allows lawyers and parties to eFile various documents and to initiate applications by completing the forms online, paying by credit card and selecting a first court date.

After registering, lawyers and parties can keep track of their cases, identify documents that have been filed and view outcomes, orders made and future court dates. Parties to a divorce application may also print off a copy of their divorce order. Users log on using a single user ID and access multiple jurisdictions from a single central web-based system.

The number of portal users has continued to grow rapidly since its inception with a further significant increase in registered users recorded in 2011-12. The number of registered users has grown from 57,602 at 30 June 2011 to 85,332 at 30 June 2012. As at 30 June 2012 there were 3280 registered law firms and 6746 individual lawyers and barristers. Table 1.2 provides further detail regarding the number of portal users.

Table 1.2 Registered users of the Commonwealth Courts Portal, 2008-09 to 2011-12

 

30 June 2009

30 June 2010

30 June 2011

30 June 2012

Number of law firms registered

667

1279

2466

3280

Number of lawyers registered

1761

2827

5026

6746

Total registered users

5900

24,073

57,602

85,332

eFiling rates continued to increase in 2011-12 with 7952 divorce applications and 1541 other forms of applications lodged electronically. The number of applications made by eFiling is expected to continue to grow in 2012-13.

A total of 96,228 supplementary documents such as affidavits were eFiled. The content of each of these documents is available for viewing online by registered parties to a matter. This alleviates the need for these parties to attend a court registry to view the physical file.

Improvements made to the portal during 2011-12 included:

  • a subpoena screen which allows parties to check if their request to inspect a document has been approved
  • a screen showing a complete list of all documents filed in a matter which has filters to enable searches to be conducted on:
    • date filed on
    • date filed to
    • type of document, and
    • name of filing party
  • a 'recent activity on starred files' section which highlights changes such as a document being filed, an order being made, or an event being listed
  • tabs on the homepage were reduced to improve the look and usability of the page and a new series of themed icons provides a fresh look for the homepage
  • a new alpha/numeric search feature allows users to search for party names or file numbers within their 'available files' collection
  • increased performance through the introduction of a new server and further code tuning, and
  • a global list of documents which creates a single list of all documents on a file in reverse chronological order.

Table 1.3 shows the number of supplementary documents eFiled in Federal Magistrates Court and the Family Court for the past four years by location.

Table 1.3 Documents eFiled in the Federal Magistrates Court and Family Court 2008-09 to 2011-12

 

2008-09

2009-10

2010-11

2011-12

Adelaide

191

1679

2353

4912

Albury

3

18

166

501

Alice Springs

-

1

19

109

Brisbane

943

9077

18,936

27,379

Cairns

10

64

209

1076

Canberra

5

643

1321

2004

Coffs Harbour

26

114

286

863

Dandenong

66

832

2217

5331

Darwin

13

129

212

359

Dubbo

-

9

125

363

Hobart

27

85

210

562

Launceston

15

311

575

734

Lismore

57

174

418

1109

Melbourne

425

4904

10,983

19,329

Newcastle

52

1046

2822

4724

Parramatta

187

2029

5016

7736

Rockhampton

33

374

444

746

Sydney

125

2870

6207

10,466

Townsville

35

634

1568

2115

Wollongong

10

102

430

1444

TOTAL

2223

25,095

54,517

91,862

Note: In Western Australia 827 divorce applications and 3228 supplementary documents were eFiled during 2011-12

Enhancements expected to be introduced or advanced in 2012-13 include:

  • the capability for users to create a global list of all orders on a file
  • the completion of work to ensure Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are complied in accordance with government mandated time lines
  • introduction of court lists in the portal
  • commencement of a refresh of the portal look and feel, and
  • investigation of the possibility of introducing electronic service via the portal.

A study of Indigenous Australians access to and usage of the Family Law Courts

In 2011-12 the Indigenous Working Group engaged Stephen Ralph, an independent Aboriginal consultant with extensive experience working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families in the area of family law, to undertake a study of the views and experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families who had recently been involved in family law proceedings.

The study covers issues of access to justice and recommends steps towards improved service delivery. It will help the courts develop a better understanding of how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people access the Family Law Courts, how they use the services provided by the courts, and their experience of litigating their family disputes.

The experiences and perceptions of Indigenous Australians who had recently litigated in the Family Law Courts were studied and their experiences and perceptions compared with those of a representative sample of non-Indigenous Australians. Interviews with other stakeholders, such as legal practitioners working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, were also held.

Major findings of the evaluation include:

  • From 2007-08 there has been a shift in filing trends in Indigenous matters, including a decline in the number of Indigenous applicants, an increase in Indigenous people as respondents, and an increase in matters where both parties are Indigenous.
  • Indigenous litigants were much less likely to have attended dispute resolution via a Family Relationship Centre than non-Indigenous litigants, and were more likely to have attended a legal aid conference as the first dispute resolution event.
  • Indigenous litigants were twice as likely to cite non-attendance at dispute resolution by the other party as the reason for failure to resolve the dispute.
  • Indigenous litigants rated family violence as the most important issue for them and/or the other party when ranking all of the issues involved in going to court. For the non-Indigenous group, relocation was rated as the most important issue for them and/or the other party.
  • A large majority in each group found court staff to be somewhat helpful or better in providing information and assistance. A majority in each group also reported that they had been treated with respect and sensitivity by court staff when attending court.
  • There was a higher level of dissatisfaction expressed by the non-Indigenous litigants when compared to the Indigenous litigants, but this needs to be viewed in the context of sampling differences.
  • Indigenous litigants were more balanced in their views of the Court's handling of their case and in most instances expressed relatively equal levels of satisfaction/dissatisfaction
  • Fifty-three per cent of Indigenous participants indicated that the Court had not properly considered the cultural needs of Indigenous children. Thirty-three per cent of the group 'strongly' disagreed with the statement that the children's cultural needs had been properly considered by the Court.
  • Less than 30 per cent of the Indigenous group believed that the Court displayed respect and understanding in response to their concerns about culture and its importance for children.
  • Indigenous litigants were critical of the family report writer on all aspects of the family report, but particularly the report writer's ability to deal with Indigenous cultural issues.
  • Fifty-nine per cent of the Indigenous group did not believe that the report writer had done their best to understand and report upon the cultural issues affecting the children, and
  • Practitioners expressed higher levels of satisfaction and confidence with the court's handling of the Indigenous cases than that expressed by Indigenous litigants. Practitioners were generally less satisfied with the Court's handling of Indigenous cultural issues than they were with the overall handling of their client's case. Only 46 per cent of practitioners reported that the cultural needs of the children had been properly considered by the Court. Practitioners tended to have a negative view of family reports in these cases and were consistently critical of report writers when it came to the assessment of cultural issues.

Issues that the courts are now considering, guided by the Indigenous Working Group, include:

  • accessibility of pre-filing Family Dispute Resolution Services for Indigenous Australians
  • a need to ensure that reliable and accurate data exists in relation to monitoring of court usage by Indigenous Australians, and
  • improving judicial education and awareness of Indigenous cultural issues, and improving the capacity of family report writers to assess Indigenous cultural issues.

A copy of the final report is expected to be published later in 2012.

Registrar Workload Project

The Registrar Workload Project continued during 2011-12. In October 2010, the Chief Federal Magistrate and Chief Justice had established a working group to identify, quantify and report on the work undertaken by registrars for the Federal Magistrates Court and the Family Court. Broadly, the project terms of reference require categories of workload and drivers of workload to be identified, also resource allocations and recommendations for future resourcing. For more information about the workload project, see Internal Evaluations on page 92.

Client Service Senior Manager's Group

The Client Service Senior Managers' Group (CSSMG) comprises registry managers and registry and judicial service managers from the Federal Magistrates Court and the Family Court. The group aims to identify and implement ways to continually improve service delivery across the courts by streamlining procedures, ensuring consistency in work practice, providing better information and enhancing client contact with the courts.

The group meets by telelink monthly and uses the Family Law Courts' Connections technology through a CSSMG community. Through this community members can discuss issues, provide reports, post blogs and upload files for discussion within the group.

CSSMG was involved in several priority projects during 2011-12 including review of:

  • the Q-Matic ticketing system and implementation of a new centrally managed system
  • the intranets and the creation of a client service wiki to ensure staff have access to the most up-to-date procedural information
  • the client service induction process which has resulted in new starters receiving a comprehensive package of information and training. This package complements the overall induction program to the courts, which is available to all staff, and
  • eFiling procedures to ensure that the most efficient use of the technology is being implemented in response to the growth in eFiling. This will be ongoing as the take-up rates continue to increase.

User Satisfaction Survey

The Family Law Courts, with the help of 102 university students and volunteers, conducted over 1300 user satisfaction surveys at 13 court locations during June and July 2011.

The aim was to gauge the level of satisfaction that litigants, lawyers and even people making an enquiry had regarding their interaction with the courts on family law matters. It did not look at decisions or rulings made by the courts, rather the experiences and services of individuals while dealing with the courts.

It was found that almost 92 per cent of respondents were satisfied with the services provided to them and more than 85 per cent were generally satisfied with their overall visit to the courts. The survey also found strong, positive responses regarding facilities, safety and the service that they received, with respondents describing staff as 'friendly', 'helpful' and 'cheerful'.

Areas for improvement included the need for greater clarity on the next steps for litigants, and general timing issues. Respondents also commented about more court staff being needed to speed up document filing at counters.

It is intended the survey will be held regularly, at least once every two years to help the courts refine their services and ensure that users needs are met to the best of the courts' ability. The final report is on the Federal Magistrates Court website at www.fmc.gov.au

Family violence screening within Child Dispute Services

In June 2011, a working group was established to consider the most effective and efficient ways of implementing family violence screening processes within the courts Child Dispute Services. The screening helps identify the existence of family violence as an issue as early as possible. This enables family consultants to:

  • better ensure client safety while they are engaged within the Child Dispute Services pathway
  • ensure that client safety and security are considered when planning future Child Dispute Services interventions, and
  • provide information to the courts that assists with the integration of safety measures into proposed parenting arrangements.

Following an extensive review of literature and existing screening instruments,1 as well as consultation with Dr Jennifer McIntosh, clinical child psychologist, six family violence screening questions were developed for use in child dispute conferences, child dispute duty conferences and child inclusive conferences. The questions were based on acknowledged risk factors relating to the safety of parents and children.

The questions were trialled in all registries in October 2011 and evaluated through a written questionnaire and telephone conferences with participating family consultants. The evaluation confirmed that formal screening helped considerably in identifying family violence. For example, in response to a question about threats to physical safety one or other party answered yes in 85.5 per cent of cases.

Based on trial feedback, two additional questions were included. The final set of eight questions target the following risk factors:

  • the presence of apprehended violence orders
  • fear of harm
  • threats to harm
  • spousal abuse history
  • injuries
  • recent escalation
  • concurrent child abuse, and
  • concurrent psychological abuse.

An implementation plan was developed with training for all family consultants and then subsequent monitoring of implementation in each registry. Training was based on the family violence screening guidelines that accompany the screening questions. The guidelines and the screening process highlight the thematic links between the questions and the revised and expanded definition of family violence as set out the 2011 amendments to the Family Law Act.

Implementation across all locations of the courts was completed in May 2012. The standardised screening questions now form part of the opening phase of all child dispute conferences, child dispute duty conferences and child inclusive conferences.

Revised Family Violence Best Practice Principles launched

In July 2011, the (then) Attorney-General Robert McClelland, Chief Federal Magistrate Pascoe and Chief Justice Bryant launched the revised Family Violence Best Practice Principles.

The principles were first developed in 2009 by the Family Court's Family Violence Committee and were reviewed and updated by a joint Federal Magistrates Court-Family Court committee to ensure they optimally assisted their intended audiences.

Protecting families and children who are engaged with the family law system from the effects of family violence is a priority for both courts. The principles assist by acting as a checklist of matters that judges, federal magistrates, court staff, litigants and legal professionals can refer to at each stage of the litigation process.

The committee considered delaying the release of the updated best practice principles until the commencement of the Family Law Legislation Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures) Act 2011, however due to uncertainty on when commencement would be, it was decided to release the principles with the understanding that further revision would be required when the family violence amendments passed into law.

Further information about a review of the courts' family violence strategy (a Portfolio Budget Statements strategic initiative) is on page 7 of this report.

Sydney family law settlement service

In late May 2012, the Sydney family law settlement service started and is to continue until October 2012, after which it will be evaluated. It is a joint initiative of the Law Society of New South Wales, New South Wales Bar Association, Federal Magistrates Court and the Family Court.

The aim of the service is to settle as many family law property matters as early as possible without a court hearing (trial), thus avoiding the cost and time of a fully defended hearing and reducing the number of cases awaiting final hearing in the courts.

A total of 125 Sydney and Wollongong property matters have been identified as suitable for mediation (excluding those with allegations of family violence, for example). These matters have already had a conciliation conference. Parties will be invited to voluntarily agree to attend the service and where consent is not given by both parties, a judicial officer may consider whether any orders should be made that the parties attend the service.

The Law Society will facilitate the coordination and administration of the service. Practitioners who are experienced in mediating in family law matters and are on the Law Society's and NSW Bar Association's mediation panels will be engaged to participate.

An evaluation, planned for November and December 2012, will determine if the service should be continued, including more widely in the courts.

Statement of Strategic Intent

To assist with strategic planning, the Family Law Court's administration is developing a Statement of Strategic Intent. The document outlines the challenges, directions and priorities of the courts' administration for 2012-13 and builds on the work already achieved since the merger of the administrations in 2009. The Statement of Strategic Intent is expected to be released early in 2012-13.

Courts win 2011 AIJA Award for Excellence in Judicial Administration

In October 2011, the Young Employees Advisory Group (YEAG) initiative was awarded the 2011 Australasian Institute for Judicial Administration (AIJA) Award for Excellence.

The courts entered the YEAG initiative in the award because it is a first for Australian courts: it was designed to enable younger employees to bring a different perspective to issues and approaches in court administration. The AIJA Award for Excellence in Judicial Administration has been running since 2002 and is designed to recognise outstanding achievement in the administration of justice within Australia. It is awarded biennially. Nominations for the award must have improved access to justice, demonstrated innovation and delivered real benefits for the justice system.

In initiating YEAG, the Court recognised that in Australia and within the courts generally, there is an ageing workforce, which needs to be addressed. Further, giving younger employees a forum to express their views and, through project work, put ideas into practice, creates a deeper awareness of the courts' business, administrative and governance arrangements. This assists in the professional development of younger employees.

Also recognised is that access to justice is not just about improving the way the courts deliver their services externally. Internal improvements also have an impact by having the right people to deliver services and having healthy and robust staff better able to meet the needs of clients.

Launch of new online Performance Management Development System

The Australian Public Service Commission's State of the Service survey results (2008-2009 and 2009-2010) indicated that developing and managing performance was an area in which some improvement was necessary. To address this, the courts' first joint Enterprise Agreement in 2010 sought to strengthen the courts' Performance Management Development System (PMDS) so that it not only reflected performance development but also had a strong emphasis on managing performance.

This was important because progression through the increments of a particular level and the productivity pay increases under the enterprise agreement are both tied to satisfactory performance.

A new online tool-Career Manager-was launched in October 2011. This tool allows discussions to be recorded in the Performance Management Development Plan via the Employee Self Service (ESS) system, making processing increments and pay rises on 1 July each year a simpler process.

It also has advantages to employees, such as career enhancement, salary progression and job satisfaction.

Environmental Champions Network

The Environmental Champions Network was formed in 2010 as a result of a project by the YEAG in 2009-10.

Membership now comprises 19 staff (up from the original five), representing 13 sites nationally. The network is chaired by the environmental manager and meets via teleconference every six to eight weeks.

Representatives discuss local registry issues as well as those that have a national impact. This has included paper use, the cost of photocopying, the impact of eFiling, environmentally friendly products, new printers, signage issues, and the availability of recycling. The representatives also encourage others at their registries to improve environmentally sustainable behaviour such as increasing recycling, shutting down computers, and turning off lights.

Some of the groups notable projects for 2011-12 include:

  • Earth Hour
  • National Recycling Week
  • Mobile Muster
  • Christmas shutdown drive
  • desktop computer shutdown drive
  • launch of the courts' environmental logo, and
  • forming an Environmental Champions Network Connections community.

Connecting our staff

Connections is a social networking environment that supports staff to communicate and collaborate in the work environment. Connections was officially launched to staff on 1 May 2012. It allows staff to:

  • create a profile-upload a photo, record contact information and list past experience, skills, and interests
  • create or join a community-share information and interact with other staff with similar roles or projects. Participate in a discussion forums, share bookmarks and feeds with other members
  • subscribe to feeds-keep up-to-date with the latest information, and participate in or start a discussion
  • write or read a blog-give feedback or share information by writing text, adding a link or uploading an image or video. Blogs are updated daily like an online journal
  • write, read or edit a wiki-collaboratively author, view or edit information. A wiki is for multiple users to create and modify the pages
  • create an activity-organise a team or an individual's work, assign ownership and create due dates for actions involving one or more individuals, and
  • share files and content with others-upload presentations, documents, videos or files into a file-sharing library. Keep them private, semi-private, or public and add tags, rating, add recommendations and see comments.

The use of Connections is governed by a number of existing court-wide policies and staff must ensure their use of it, in terms of access to official and private records and the release of information also complies with the APS Code of Conduct.

The National Enquiry Centre (NEC) had been trialling the use of a Lotus wiki since 2006 for sharing information related to client enquiries and court procedures, however that software had shortcomings in terms of the courts' needs. From late 2007 to early 2008 a range of other products were evaluated. As a result, a Collaboration Technical Options Paper was delivered in October 2009 and a decision was made to proceed with Connections.

A trial of Connections was undertaken with the NEC from March to June 2011. After analysing the trial outcomes (including technical and other issues) it was decided to provide the software to further groups of early adopters including a number of project groups, the Client Services Senior Managers Group and family consultants. By January 2012 over 50 communities had been established.

A staff survey in 2011 found that 75 per cent of respondents had used social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and My Space and almost half had been using these for two to four years. It was then decided to launch Connections to all staff.

While it is early days, at 30 June 2012, it was expected that Connections will provide staff with a tool that will increase their capacity to collaborate, especially with staff in other court locations. This will have a positive effect on staff development, liaison and opportunities for sharing ideas and will lead to improved service delivery.


Footnotes

1 Ellis, D & Stuckless, N (2006) Domestic Violence, Dove and Divorce Mediation , Family Court Review, Vol 44(4); Holtzworth-Munroe, A, Beck, C & Applegate, A (2010) Mediator's Assessment of Safety Issues and Concerns (MASIC): A screening interview for intimate partner violence and abuse available in the public domain, Family Court Review, 48(4), p646-662. Kropp, P, Hart, S, Webster, C, & Eaves, D (1995). The Spousal Assault Risk Assessment (SARA). Vancouver, British Columbia: British Columbia Institute Against Family Violence; McIntosh, J.E (2012) DOOR 1. "Parent self report screen" in McIntosh, JE and Ralfs, C (2012) The Family Law DOORS Handbook, Canberra, Australian Government Attorney General's Department.