From the Chief Judge

It gives me great pleasure to introduce the first annual report of the Federal Circuit Court of Australia. The Court was renamed with effect from 12 April 2013 following legislative amendments introduced by the then Attorney-General, The Honourable Nicola Roxon. New courts are created relatively infrequently and the renaming of a court is an even rarer occurrence. This very positive development followed a lengthy period of uncertainty about the Court’s future, and was a very significant milestone for the Court.

It is appropriate to record that the years from when the plan to merge the Court was first articulated, to when the plan was finally abandoned, were very difficult for the Court. I am enormously grateful to all members of the Court who continued to work hard and put the interests of litigants first, despite the uncertainty and the consequent effect on morale.

The renaming of the Court and its judicial officers had the strong support of the entire Court and the superior federal courts. The name Federal Circuit Court was adopted to reflect the Court’s unique place as the only court at the federal level to actively maintain a continuous presence outside major capital cities. This allows members of the public who live in rural and regional Australia to more easily access the federal court system to help resolve legal problems without the need to go to the major cities.

The Federal Circuit Court deals with the majority of federal filings in Australia and, thus also assists the superior courts by enabling them to concentrate on the longer and more significant cases.

Under its new, distinctive name, the Court will continue to maintain its innovative approach to its workload. From its foundation, the Court deliberately adopted a model of judge-lead case management in which, immediately upon filing, all matters are allocated directly to an individual judge. The Court’s experience is that by placing matters under the oversight of the ultimate decision maker, it can dispose of a very high volume of work in an efficient and timely manner. This approach builds on the Court’s legislated mandate to operate informally and with streamlined procedures. Our Court in fact demonstrates that a high level of judicial involvement can mean speedy and cost-effective resolution of litigation. Active case management practices and a national team of case management judges are the keys to managing the Court’s extremely large caseload.

As an independent court with a distinctive style and national presence, the resourcing needs of the Court clearly need to be considered in light of its workload and geographic reach. As a busy intermediate level trial court, appropriate investment is required, for example, in business systems and processes in order to best support our judges and staff in court and in chambers. Adequate funding is needed to sustain a healthy circuit program which can evolve as needs change. The Court is also focussed on engagement with the Australian community, and even more so the need to engage pro-actively with Indigenous Australians.

It is critical that the Court is resourced in a way that allows time for judicial education and operational planning, as they contribute significantly to the capacity of the Court to respond to work demands and the need for ongoing innovation. In short, the Court needs an adequate level of resourcing to facilitate all dimensions of its work. It has been publicly acknowledged that the Court was never properly resourced, that a fundamental review of the Court’s budget needs is overdue, and that now is the appropriate time for that to occur.

In this context, I note that in the past financial year three appointments were made to the Court; two of these appointments were made to fill vacancies. One of these two appointments was made to fill a vacancy caused by the death of a sitting member of the Court some 16 months earlier. A further appointment was announced just prior to the end of the financial year which takes the total membership of the Court at the time of writing to 64. Raw numbers are, however, not the issue. What is important is an adequate level of resourcing commensurate with workload. The Court is, appropriately, the workhorse of the federal courts and continues to demonstrate both a high level of expertise and timely resolution of a large volume of work. The Court must also now plan for a period of transition as those judges initially appointed to the Court approach statutory retirement. This will mean a significant number of retirements relative to the size of the bench. The Court is currently assessing the impact of this transition so that it does not affect the service provided to the public.

The Court has recently paid particular attention to evaluating work practices and is developing links with the profession and those agencies which play a role in the family and general federal law system. Further work will be done in the coming year in these areas, including collaboration with the Law Council of Australia Court Liaison Committee. This is in view of the extensive general federal law work of the Court and the need to further enhance the Court’s broad federal jurisdiction. I anticipate this will lead to clear benefits for court users.

The objective of evaluating work practices is to ensure that the Court and those with whom it collaborates share a common understanding of needs and expectations. This will improve the court experience overall by ensuring that practitioners and parties are prepared and spend only the time that is needed in the courtroom. There has been expanded engagement with stakeholders in improving information flow and processes around risk assessment where abuse or violence is a factor. This is intended to ensure the Court has early access to information of relevance when confronted with cases where risks are alleged.

When the administrative functions of the Court were merged with the Family Court, I noted that having a single Chief Executive Officer reporting to the two heads of jurisdiction was not the preferred model of the courts. An agreed alternative model had been put to government by both the Federal Circuit Court and the Family Court. The alternative model involves each court having its own principal registrar/CEO position.

The Federal Circuit Court will continue the traditions and positive attitude towards its work, first established by the Federal Magistrates Court. The history of the Court to date has been one of ongoing change and improvement. I am confident that the Court’s new identity will provide a strong foundation to further develop its role as a high volume federal trial court serving all Australians.

Statistics at a glance

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

Family law

Filings

Finalisations

 

2012–13

2011–12

2012–13

2011–12

Final orders

17,364

17,415

16,936

16,785

Interim orders

20,242

20,332

20,015

20,080

Divorce applications

43,288

46,031

44,817

45,685

Other

1724

1771

1712

1877

Total family law

82,618

85,549

83,480

84,427

 

General federal law

Filings

Finalisations

 

2012–13

2011–12

2012–13

2011–12

Bankruptcy

3984

4590

4070

4728

Migration

1981

1464

1395

1172

Administrative

22

15

22

12

Admiralty

16

7

16

6

Consumer

70

56

65

63

Copyright

40

44

44

53

Human rights

105

81

92

88

Industrial

763

736

746

665

Total general federal law

6981

6993

6450

6787

Developments during 2012–13

Federal Magistrates Court of Australia re-named as the Federal Circuit Court of Australia

On 12 April 2013, the Federal Magistrates Court of Australia became known as the Federal Circuit Court of Australia and the federal magistrates became known as judges.

The name of the Court has been changed to more accurately reflect its role and its accessibility for all court users. The inclusion of ‘circuit’ to its name highlights the prominence of the Court’s circuit work in regional areas and ‘federal’ reflects its broad Commonwealth jurisdiction in both family law and general federal law.

The legislative vehicle for this change was the Federal Circuit Court of Australia Legislation Amendment Act 2012. In addition the Federal Circuit Court of Australia Legislation Amendment Act 2012 made consequential amendments to other Commonwealth legislation to reflect the new name of the Court and the title of federal magistrates.

The jurisdiction and status of the Court and the arrangements under which it operates has not changed.

Ceremonial Sitting

On 1 May 2013 a Ceremonial Sitting was held in the Sydney Law Courts Building to mark the historic change of name of the Federal Magistrates Court to the Federal Circuit Court of Australia, and the change in title of its members from federal magistrate to judge.

In perhaps the largest single sitting of an Australian court, 61 judicial officers convened in Sydney. Joining Chief Judge Pascoe and members of the Court on the bench were the Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia, Diana Bryant, in recognition of her contribution as the first Chief Federal Magistrate, and Justices Ryan and Bennett, former members of the Court, now members of the Family Court.

The sitting commenced with a welcome to country by Mr Michael West on behalf of the Sydney Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council. As part of the welcome a message stick was presented to the Chief Judge. The message stick is inscribed with a message of ‘one community, one mob, one planet and one humanity that we are all brothers and sisters’. It also has inscribed the scales of justice as a prompt for the Court to think about the interaction of law between the Australian society and Aboriginal people. The message stick was accepted by the Court in the spirit of reconciliation and will be displayed as a continual reminder of the Court’s important role for Australian Indigenous communities.

The Attorney-General, the Honourable Mark Dreyfus QC addressed the Court and observed ‘that the changes to name and title recognised at the sitting more accurately reflected the role and status of the Court in the federal judicial system’.

Reflecting on the Court’s commitment to providing access to justice to the Australian public, the Attorney observed that the Court reached communities in ‘Broken Hill, Bundaberg, Ballarat, and Burnie’. The Attorney concluded his address with the observation that ‘the unique character and broad reach of the Federal Circuit Court of Australia plays a vital role in the federal justice system’.

Mr Michael Colbran QC, speaking on behalf of the Australian Bar Association, stated that the Court’s geographic reach is matched by its commitment to quality of service and a “characteristic focus” on the needs of those who come before it. Representing the Law Council of Australia, Mr Joe Catanzariti noted that the nature and volume of the Court’s work meant that it was the first experience of the justice system for many Australians and, indeed, many prospective Australians.

The Chief Judge in his address spoke of the way in which the sitting celebrated both continuity and change in the legal system. He observed that while courts can seem remote and bound by tradition, legal systems are in a ‘continuing state of evolution’, and therefore the sitting was ‘about the capacity of the court system to grow and change, whilst preserving the great traditions of the law’.

The Chief Judge also emphasised that the Court’s commitment to its rural and regional work captured only part of its role. He stated that the Court was also working hard to develop circuits which meet the needs of particular litigants, including those of Indigenous Australians, Australians from different cultural backgrounds and those with disabilities.

The Chief Judge paid tribute to the hard work, dedication and skill of the Court’s judicial officers which, more than anything else, had ‘earned the Court the respect it now enjoys within the judiciary, the legal profession and in the community at large’. According to the Attorney-General ‘this respect warranted, at the least, a new name and title’.

Before adjourning the Court, the Chief Judge said that “the Federal Circuit Court will play its part in ensuring access to justice for all Australians, regardless of their geographic location, economic circumstances, ethnic or cultural background”.

A full transcript of the ceremony is available on the Federal Circuit Court website www.federalcircuitcourt.gov.au under the publications section.

Merged courts’ administration formalised

The Courts and Tribunals Legislation Amendment (Administration) Act 2012 was given assent. Amongst other things, it provided for the administration of the Federal Circuit Court and the Family Court to be more formally merged. The change was effective from 1 July 2013 and formalises arrangements that have been in place for some years, including that there to be a single Chief Executive Officer for both courts. The single agency is now known as the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court. It does not affect the judicial operations of either court. The courts’ administration made the necessary changes to support this.

Collaboration with Prescribed Welfare Agencies.

Consistent with the legislative amendments, the Court is seeking to better facilitate the early identification of risk in parenting matters. A new Notice of Risk has been developed and trialled in parenting proceedings filed in the Court in South Australia from 4 February 2013. For more information see www.federalcircuitcourt.gov.au

The Court has also established a committee of judges with the aim of enhancing local relationships with state and territory child welfare agencies. In the Melbourne and Dandenong registries, judges have been actively involved in the establishment, evaluation and review of a co-location initiative with the Department of Human Services. In Parramatta and Newcastle, a pilot has commenced with the Department of Family and Community Services to obtain a ‘Personal History’ document in certain proceedings.

International Framework for Court Excellence

The Court continued its adoption of the International Framework for Court Excellence in 2012–13 as a way of delivering improvements to the operation of the Court, including judicial and registry services. Judges agreed to further advance implementation of the International Framework for Court Excellence at the Court’s annual plenary in May 2013.

The Honourable Chief Judge Doogue of the District Courts of New Zealand provided a highly valuable briefing to the plenary on the merits of this model and the gains which can be made by a court through this framework. Chief Judge Pascoe subsequently appointed Judge Jarrett to advance the framework on behalf of the Court. A likely element of this program will be an internal survey of judges and staff to identify strengths and areas for change as well as a court user survey.

The Court has also undertaken a number of other initiatives aligned to seven central elements of the framework as follows.

  • Court management and leadership
    Given the Court’s workforce demographic and the likelihood of retirements within the next five years, increased attention was given to succession planning and ensuring that the Court has capacity for the future including at court administration leadership levels. The Court continued a CEO initiative targeted at younger employees, the Young Employees Advisory Group (YEAG) initiative to ensure that the Court benefits from the ideas of the next generation and that they are engaged with the future of the Court. For more information on YEAG, see the Joint Initiatives of the Court later in this section.
  • Court policies and planning
    As government policy became clear about the structure of federal courts, the Chief Judge determined that fresh strategic foundations must be made for a future plan to underpin the Court’s unique place in the Commonwealth justice system, as the largest and busiest jurisdiction. Also, a committee of judges has been established to advise on the implementation of the International Framework of Court Excellence. The Committee will report to the Chief Judge in 2013–14 on areas in which the Court performs strongly and areas which may require change. This work will be informed by the opinions of the Court’s judiciary and the administration and also feedback from court users such as barristers and lawyers.
  • Human, material and financial resource management
    Corporate services are a fundamental foundation to the operation of the Court. A focus this financial year was working with the government about a sustainable budget for the future. This work contributed to the Court being awarded budget supplementation in 2012–13, pending a further review in 2013–14 of all federal courts financial and operational arrangements.
  • Court proceedings
    The Court has established workload review processes for the judiciary, registrars, family consultants and client services. These processes have become the cornerstone of performance review and case management. They assist the Court in promoting discussion about improvements to performance, more consistent approaches across the country, allocation of resources and case management planning.
  • Client needs and satisfaction
    Following a User Satisfaction Survey of more than 1300 respondents including litigants and lawyers, conducted in June and July 2011, the Court determined areas for improvement. The survey results were encouraging with 86 per cent of those surveyed saying that they were satisfied with their visit to court. Identified areas for improvement included form design, the website, and better information to ensure more accurate expectations ahead of court hearings including, for example, the time a court hearing might take. This initiative, directly related to client needs and satisfaction, will now become a regular feature of the Court’s assessment and improvement program.
  • Affordable and accessible court services
    The Court continued to ensure that all registries are accessible to those with disabilities. All property refurbishments were completed taking into account disability access regulations. The Court continued to provide interpreters for those parties in family law and many cases in general federal law where language was identified as a barrier to participation in court events. The Court also examined opportunities for best practice in support of interpreters in courtrooms.
    An Australian Government fee review resulted in new fees, and in some cases increased fees, for certain filings in the family law and general federal law, as part of the requirement to recover a greater percentage of the costs associated with the jurisdiction. The changes included fee waiver arrangements in some instances for those who may have evidence of financial hardship.
  • Public Trust and Confidence
    The Court has established through its surveys of family law court users that there is high level of trust and confidence in the Court’s processes, staff and procedures. To ensure that the Court continues to have the benefit of court user feedback to enable responsive adjustments and met needs, the Court will be repeat the User Satisfaction Survey in 2013–14. Feedback will be relied upon to continually improve the courts’ administration.
    The Court also promotes trust and confidence via its consultative culture and engagement with court users. The essential principle promoted by the Court in all these initiatives is transparency so that public trust and confidence is continually enhanced.

Listing Committee

In 2011 the Court established a listing committee chaired by Judge Willis to make recommendations in relation to the way in which matters are listed, time allowed for judgment writing and other measures to assist the Court in coping with its increasing workload. The listing committee reported to the judges of the Court at the 2013 Plenary in Sydney.

The Terms of Reference for the Committee included:

  • identifying the changing nature of the Court’s workload and considering whether the current time line protocols and performance indicators are appropriate
  • examining the need for a change in listing practices
  • identifying the different case management and listing practices between registries, both on circuit and at home registries
  • considering whether there is a case for adopting a national standard model of case management, listings and practices as a benchmark standard for the Court as a whole
  • identifying the competing demands upon judicial time and the extent to their impact upon chambers staff
  • identifying strategies to achieve an appropriate balance for the time spent hearing trials, interim work, case management and judgment writing, and
  • consulting with the judges when required.

The listing committee conducted an extensive consultation process that involved speaking to most of the judges in the Court undertaking family law, judges of the Family Court including Chief Justice Bryant, members of various bar associations and law societies. The consultation process resulted in the committee identifying a comprehensive range of recommendations for consideration by the Court.

Key recommendations include:

  • that the docket system remains a cornerstone of the Federal Circuit Court
  • that consideration is given to setting maximum intake each year of no more than 360 matters
  • whilst it is not recommended that a national standard of case management and listing practices be adopted, national guidelines or a best practice to underpin effective case management and listing practices should be adopted
  • that diary management and listing practices emphasise that delivering a judgment is an integral part of the hearing process
  • judges avoid listing into judgement writing weeks where they have outstanding judgements, and
  • the Court initiate workshops on managing the pressure of ongoing judgment writing.

The Chief Judge’s Policy Advisory Committee will now consider the recommendations.

The Indigenous Access to Justice Committee

In May 2012 the Chief Judge established a committee to look at ways the Federal Circuit Court can assist Indigenous litigants in family law and liaise with the relevant external groups. The committee is chaired by Judge Willis and comprises of judges representing most Federal Circuit Court locations.

The term of reference for the committee is to determine how:

  • the Federal Circuit Court of Australia can improve access to justice in this Court for Indigenous litigants.

The committee has approached this task as a three step process:

  1. to gather information by directly contacting the relevant Indigenous legal services, community services and groups and institutions who represent Indigenous litigants and others who assist potential Indigenous litigants
  2. to meet regularly, collate information and recommendations, both interim and final, and
  3. to make recommendations about improving access to the Federal Circuit Court including the pathway, procedures and practice within the Court in regard to the preparation of Indigenous matters.

The Committee aims to ensure the development and implementation of practical measures that will assist Indigenous litigants who file in the Federal Circuit Court. It is also focusing on and reviewing the current listing and case management processes in order to ascertain if there is a need for any modification to ensure they are responsive and relevant for Indigenous litigants.

The committee has undertaken a great deal of work and has largely completed the first and second tasks. A report and recommendations are currently being prepared for submission to the Chief Judge.

Liaison with the Law Council of Australia

During the year the Federal Circuit Court and the Law Council of Australia’s Liaison Committee met twice. This Committee comprises the Chief Judge and other representatives from the Court with David Gaszner and others representing the Law Council of Australia. The Committee considers issues pertaining to the general federal law jurisdiction of the Court. In particular, the Committee considered issues such as:

  • judicial resourcing and funding
  • workload trends
  • jurisdiction and Court Rules
  • case management including panels and circuits
  • transfers between courts
  • self-represented litigants
  • issues surrounding fees, and
  • impact of the Civil Dispute Resolution Act 2011.

Liaison with the Family Law Section Regional Committee

In addition to meeting regularly with the Family Law Section, the Court also initiated liaison with the Family Law Section Regional Committee. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss a range of activities with a particular focus on the Courts circuit program to rural and regional Australia.

The Family Law Section Regional Committee is made up of approximately 44 representatives from around Australia. Although not all attended the telephone links, practitioners were well represented on the two occasions meetings were held. Discussions covered a range of matters including the practices associated with attendance at court by telephone. It is envisaged that this liaison committee will continue to meet in 2013–14 with a more formal agenda to be developed.

Outlook for 2013–14

In 2013–14, the following may have an impact on the Court and its delivery of services:

  • positioning the courts to address ongoing budgetary pressures, particularly from 2014–15 onwards
  • maintaining and reviewing circuit arrangements
  • promoting the work of the Court as a broad federal law trial court, and
  • ongoing work concerning the adoption of the International Framework for Court Excellence.

Joint initiatives of the courts

Throughout 2012–13, the Federal Circuit Court was involved in a number of new and ongoing joint initiatives, including:

Commonwealth Courts Portal

The Commonwealth Courts Portal (www.comcourts.gov.au), launched in July 2007, is a continuing initiative of the Federal Circuit Court, the Family Court, and the Federal Court. The CCP provides free web-based access to information about cases that are before these courts.

Once registered, lawyers and parties can keep track of their cases, identify documents that have been filed and view outcomes, orders made and future court dates. Users log on using a single user ID and access multiple jurisdictions from a central web-based system.

A popular function is the ability for a user to elect to be notified of recent activity on their file(s). To date more than 80,000 such notifications have been sent advising users that their file has been updated.

During 2012–13, the eCourt Forum was implemented, allowing interaction between the courts and clients to enable procedural matters to be heard via the CCP without having to physically attend court.

eFiling functionality continues to expand with users now able to eFile applications and responses in a case. Development will continue in 2013–14 to allow for consent order applications to be eFiled.

In addition, progress continued to be made with the government-mandated timeline to attain compliance with version 2.0 Level ‘AA’ of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines by December 2014.

The following statistics highlight the significant growth in the number of portal users as at 30 June 2013:

  • more than 4000 firms now registered
  • lawyer registrations have increased to over 8000, and
  • total registered users exceed 118,000.

Table 1.2 provides further detail regarding the number of portal users.

Table 1.2: Registered users of the Commonwealth Courts Portal, 2009–10 to 2012–13

 

30 June 2010

30 June 2011

30 June 2012

30 June 2013

Number of law firms registered

1279

2466

3280

4134

Number of lawyers registered

2827

5026

6746

8370

Total registered users

24,073

57,602

85,332

118,108

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

Table 1.3: Documents eFiled in the Federal Circuit Court and Family Court 2009–10 to 2012–13

 

2009–10

2010–11

2011–12

2012–13

ACT

643

1321

2004

2914

NSW

6362

15,470

27,206

39,659

NT

130

231

468

655

QLD

10,149

21,157

31,316

41,114

SA

1679

2353

4912

7121

TAS

396

785

1296

1576

VIC

5736

13,200

24,660

39,244

TOTAL

25,095

54,517

91,862

132,283

Electronic Court File

During the reporting year, as part of the Federal Court’s Electronic Court File project, the Federal Circuit Court and the Federal Court commenced work on adapting the electronic court file prototype to apply to general federal law matters in the Federal Circuit Court. A presentation of the prototype was given to the Federal Circuit Court’s Policy Advisory Committee and a joint working group has been established between the two courts to progress implementation. The project, which is the culmination of the Federal Court’s ‘Myfiles’ concept, will ultimately replace the paper file for general federal law matters. It will be particularly beneficial to members of the legal profession with multiple general federal law matters in the Court at the one time. They will be able to lodge documents and correspondence electronically with the Court and remotely view the documents on the court file.

Young Employees Advisory Group

The Young Employees Advisory Group (YEAG) has been established to provide staff under the age of 27 years with the opportunity to participate in a national development forum, to increase the engagement of young employees within the Court and to provide a platform to contribute ideas to the future business operations of the courts.

This year the group consists of 17 members including representation from judicial support, administrative and corporate staff from the Federal Circuit Court and the Family Court (with family law and general federal law represented). The group also includes two employees from the ACT courts.

As part of the YEAG program, participants are required to identify and develop projects that will benefit the courts. This year, four project groups have been formed to develop the projects identified by the broader group which is represented in Figure 1.1.

The four projects can be described as having either a business or people focus including:

  • ‘Clear clicking’ and ‘Self-represented litigants’ fall into the business focus, and
  • ‘ASPIRE’ and ‘Education and exchange’ have a people focus.

Each project group is sponsored by a senior executive staff member who will assist in managing the projects.

YEAG have met in Melbourne and Canberra and will meet again in September 2013 in Sydney prior to meeting in Canberra for the final presentation of the projects to the CEO’s Management Advisory Group in November 2013.

Figure 1.1: Young Employees Advisory Group matrix of projects for 2012–2013

CLEAR CLICKING
Self-represented Litigant Perspective 
Simplify the pathway for self represented litigants on the courts’ websites to provide clarity in respect to forms and procedures when commencing proceedings.

ASPIRE
Employee Performance and Recognition 
Develop a staff recognition program that is offered to staff quarterly on a regional basis.
Appreciating
Strong
Performance &
Innovation by
Recognising
Employees

Business benefit: Easier access to information for litigants and reduced strain on court staff.

Business benefit: increased staff engagement, retention and productivity and enhancement of the courts’ reputation as an employer of choice.

SELF-REPRESENTED LITIGANTS
Stopping the DIY Confusion 
Produce a video aimed at guiding self-represented litigants through court processes particularly in respect to the service of court documents.

EDUCATION AND EXCHANGE
Innovation and excellence
An exchange program which involves the exchange of staff between the Federal Circuit Court/Family Court and State courts to be piloted in the Canberra registry.

An education program designed to provide university students with the opportunity to be mentored by the judiciary, gain an insight into courts and the decision making process. The group is working toward having this run as a pilot program in the Melbourne Registry

Business benefit: timely access to information that is relevant to current court issues, in line with existing digital strategies and aligned with the Court Excellence Framework.

Business benefit: improved capacity to engage, retain and attract employees.

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

A study of Indigenous Australians access to and use of the Family Law Courts was completed in 2012–13. The study which commenced in 2010, looked at issues associated with access to justice and recommended steps towards improved service delivery in the Family Law Courts. It compared the experiences and perceptions of Indigenous Australians, who had recently litigated in the Family Law Courts, with those of a representative sample of non-Indigenous Australians.

The study was initiated by the Family Law Indigenous Working Group, chaired by Justice Robert Benjamin. Stephen Ralph, an independent Aboriginal consultant with extensive experience working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families in the area of family law, undertook the study, seeking the views and experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families who had recently been involved in family law proceedings.

The major findings of the review were reported in last year’s annual report. A copy of the final report is available under the publications section on the Federal Circuit Court’s website at www.federalcircuitcourt.gov.au

Client Service Senior Manager’s Group

Chaired by the Executive Director Client Services, the Client Service Senior Managers’ Group (CSSMG) comprises registry managers and registry and judicial service managers from the Federal Circuit 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 video link six-weekly and uses the 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 2012–13 including:

  • the simplification of the Document Request Form to assist clients seeking copies of orders or divorce certificates
  • the development and implementation of procedures to support the changes to the fees regulations, which included some new areas such as conciliation conferences
  • the creation of a client service wiki to ensure staff have access to the most up-to-date procedural information
  • the review and refinement of the processes to support the family violence amendments introduced in 2012, and
  • the ongoing exploration of eFiling procedures to ensure that the most efficient use of the technology.

Client services – New queuing system

In October 2012 a ticket-based queuing system was installed at the Adelaide, Parramatta, Dandenong, Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney registries, replacing the previous queuing system. Clients entering these registries are greeted with a touch screen kiosk giving them various options to choose from. Once the client is issued with a ticket, the queue management system allows specialists in different areas to manage certain enquiries, facilitating shorter wait times and more efficient service.

While formal feedback from clients has not yet been sought, there was positive comment about the ability to ticket the subpoena and file viewing area at the registries. This has resulted in a more orderly flow of clients. From a staff perspective, the new system is beneficial in various ways. The training and helpdesk support have been commented upon favourably. Overall, the new system has been beneficial for staff, clients and other court users by way of its improved functionality and reliability. Now waiting clients can see for themselves how long they might need to wait and staff can re-allocate client services staff to areas of higher demand at any given time.

Family Law Client Satisfaction Survey

Following a court user satisfaction survey, conducted in 2011, of more than 1300 respondents including litigants and lawyers, the Court analysed the feedback and results and determined those areas for improvement. The results of the survey were encouraging with 86 per cent of those surveyed saying that they were satisfied with their visit to court. Areas for improvement identified in this survey exercise included: form design; the website; and better information to ensure more accurate expectations ahead of court hearings including for example the time a court hearing might take. This initiative, directly related to client needs and satisfaction, will now become a regular feature of the Court’s assessment and improvement program.

Affordable and Accessible Court Services

The Court continued to ensure that all registries are accessible to those with disabilities. All property refurbishments were completed taking into account disability access regulations.

The Court continued to provide interpreters for those parties where language was identified as a barrier to participation in court events and also examined opportunities for best practice in support of interpreters in courtrooms.

Federal government fee review resulted in new and in some cases increased fees for certain filings in the family law jurisdiction of the Federal Circuit Court as part of the requirement to recover a greater percentage of the costs to government. These reforms included fee waiver arrangements for those who may have evidence of financial hardship to ensure that affordable and accessible justice was provided.

Family Violence Best Practice Principles – Third Edition

The third edition of the Family Violence Best Practice Principles was launched at the family law conference in Hobart in October 2012 by the then Attorney-General, the Honourable Nicola Roxon MP. At the launch, Chief Justice Diana Bryant AO of the Family Court said there had been significant progress over recent years in enhancing the communication between those who have a role in family law and in the protection of children.

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

The Best Practice Principles are applicable in all cases involving family violence or child abuse or the risk of family violence or child abuse in family law proceedings before the courts.

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, court staff, litigants and legal professionals can refer to at each stage of the litigation process.

The Best Practice Principles recognise:

  • the harmful effects of family violence and abuse on victims, and
  • the place accorded to the issue of family violence in the Family Law Act 1975 (Cth).

The Best Practice Principles are available at www.familylawcourts.gov.au

Sydney Family Law Settlement Service

The Sydney Family Law Settlement Service pilot commenced in May 2012, and concluded in December 2012. It was a joint initiative of the Law Society of New South Wales, the New South Wales Bar Association, the Federal Circuit Court and the Family Court.

The pilot aimed to settle as many family law property matters as possible without a court hearing (trial), thus avoiding the cost and time of a fully defended hearing and to reduce the number of cases awaiting final hearing in the courts. The Law Society facilitated the coordination and administration of the service. Practitioners who were experienced in mediating in family law matters and were on the Law Society’s and NSW Bar Association’s mediation panels were engaged to conduct the mediations.

A total of 148 Sydney and Wollongong property matters were selected as suitable to participate in the service, being matters for which a conciliation conference had been held but excluding cases, for example, with allegations of family violence. Parties were invited to voluntarily agree to attend the service and, where consent was not given by both parties, a judicial officer considered whether any orders should be made that the parties attend the service.

At 30 June 2013, evaluation of the pilot was continuing, however, the known results indicate it was well received and has potential for the future. Discussions were underway about refinements that might be made to the model, should it be continued in the future.

Of the initial 148 matters, 89 were subsequently referred to the service for mediation. Thirty-five matters were deemed not suitable following representations by the parties and further examination. The remainder either settled or discontinued prior to referral to the service or was privately mediated.

Of the 89 matters referred to the service, 26 matters (29 per cent) settled at the mediation through the service and 15 (17 per cent) settled prior to the mediation. Thus, a total of 41 matters (46 per cent) of the matters referred to mediation therefore settled. In other words, less than half of the matters (39 of the 89 (44 per cent) referred to the service progressed through to a court hearing and many of those were of reduced length due to partial settlement or narrowing of issues at the mediation. The other nine of those 89 were still in some form of action, either mediation was ongoing or other reporting back was yet to happen or the status of their settlement was yet to be reported, at 30 June 2013.

Given the success of this initiative, it is likely that the service will continue in the Federal Circuit Court and Family Court in Sydney.

Statement of strategic intent

In July 2012, the Family Law Court’s administration released a Statement of Strategic Intent, outlining the challenges, directions and priorities of the courts’ administration for 2012–13. The Statement built on the work already achieved after the merger of the separate administrations of the Federal Circuit Court and the Family Court in 2009. At 30 June 2013, this document was being updated to reflect the implementation of the new joint agency, from 1 July 2013. From that date the administration of the courts were formed into one body to be known as the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court.

In the document foreword, the Chief Executive Officer, Richard Foster, noted that the courts’ administration operates in an environment of change, with increasing expectations from court users. ‘We have a critical role in shaping and defining service delivery and we pride ourselves on delivering timely, high quality, cost effective support to the Family Court of Australia and Federal Circuit Court of Australia.’

Mr Foster acknowledged that there were significant challenges, including ongoing financial pressures, the Government’s desire for closer sharing of corporate resources and the continued pressure on staff to do more with less.

The Statement noted that clients have told the courts that they want:

  • ease and simplicity in procedure, policy and system
  • information that is understandable and accessible
  • timeliness
  • assistance
  • respect for privacy, and
  • a safe environment.

Priority actions for 2012–13 included:

  • implementing ongoing savings measures in support of the Court’s agreed budget position, including possible restructure of the service model and/or funding arrangements
  • continued development of a unified corporate service to support the courts
  • exploration of any opportunities to share or restructure corporate services with the Federal Court
  • completion, integration and adoption of operational data for the judiciary, registrars, family consultants and client services to inform case management planning in accordance with the Court Excellence Framework (see Initiatives for more about the Framework)
  • advancing ‘transformational’ opportunities through the development of an ‘electronic court file’ including the development of an electronic divorce file and process
  • implementing changes to process, practice and procedure arising from the family violence amendments
  • advancing and integrating the seven key areas in the Court Excellence Framework
  • considering and implementing change in response to the 2011 Family Law User Satisfaction Survey so that the courts are continually reviewing and improving services for court user value
  • working with the Federal Court to ensure appropriate services and facilities are available for general federal law matters
  • reviewing the application of the Staff Development Fund to ensure it is effectively deployed to key learning and development opportunities for staff, and
  • continuing to explore accommodation options for Federal Circuit Court judges in the Sydney central business district.

At 30 June 2013, significant progress had been made on the majority of the priority actions with some continuing over the next 12 months.

International Day of People with a Disability

On 3 December 2012, staff of the courts came together for lunch via video conference to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the International Day of People with Disability. The day is a United Nations sanctioned day aimed at promoting greater understanding of people with disability and to encourage support for their dignity, rights and wellbeing.

Connecting our staff – Upgrade of Connections

Connections is a social networking environment that supports staff to communicate and collaborate in the work environment, regardless of their physical location. It was introduced in 2012.

In February 2013 the courts upgraded Connections in order to take advantage of a more usable cleaner look as well as new features and improved functionality. The new features provide greater capacity to share, recommend and follow information as well as improving the methods staff can use to work in remote teams, generate discussions, ideas and collect feedback.

Currently there are 128 communities operating within the Connections environment. The objectives of the communities include sharing information, communicating initiatives such as Harmony Day, planning activities and projects and reviewing and improving procedures.

Plans for the future include integrating the profiles, wikis and blogs applications with the Court’s intranet to make better use of these applications and increase their accessibility. This should make it easier for staff to collaborate and communicate on projects and strategies that are undertaken to improve services to the community.

New video conferencing software

New infrastructure to support video conferencing was implemented across the courts in the second half of 2012–13. The equipment allows video conferences between registries to be conducted for free. This is possible because the video conference content is now being carried over the courts’ data network instead of expensive external ISDN lines.

The new video conference portable units offer high quality video and sound. The uptake of video conferencing has increased rapidly for inter-registry links, as managers are finding this a more effective and cheaper solution for multi-site meetings, rather than the traditional telephone conference calls or travel.

At 30 June 2013, the courts were also working with the supplier to enable outside parties to link into the video conference systems via their PCs. This enhancement will allow parties and witnesses, subject to approval by the Court, to appear via video from any location in the world at no additional cost to the courts.