The Reconciliation Action Plan was launched

The Court made significant progress in implementing the Court Excellence Framework

From the Chief Judge

pascoe

Chief Judge Pascoe AO CVO

The first year of the Federal Circuit Court has been a very busy one. The maturity of the Court as it enters its 15th year is reflected in the fact that several of its judges will reach the statutory age of retirement in the coming year, and in the future, the Court will need to manage the regular retirement and replacement of its judges.

A major achievement this year was the publication of the Court's first Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP). The Federal Circuit Court is the first court to enter into a RAP although it is not the first Australian court to address the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Other courts have played pioneering roles in responding to the particular needs of our first peoples. However the Federal Circuit Court is the Court where family law issues arising in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families are likely to be heard. It is also the only Federal court to maintain a regular presence in regional and remote Australia through its circuit work.

The RAP was launched at the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence, Redfern, on 31 March 2014 by the Federal Attorney-General, the Hon Senator George Brandis QC. The event was both an emotional and uplifting experience. It focused on the urgent need for greater responsiveness to maintaining family ties in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. The Court can play an important role here, and the essential message of the RAP is that the Court is committed to making positive efforts to improve access to justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders.

The Court has also made progress with the adoption of the International Framework for Court Excellence (IFCE). Under the guidance of a working group of judges, members of the Court and its administrative staff completed the IFCE self-assessment exercise and the results were presented at the Court's annual Plenary. The IFCE and the outcomes of the self-assessment will be used to guide decisions about policy development and operational reform. The value of the IFCE exists in providing a statement of core values and a well-structured set of factors on which to base regular assessment of court performance.

The workload of the Court continues to remain high and in some areas has increased at an unusually rapid rate. The most notable change is in migration which has seen a significant increase in filings compared to the preceding reporting period. It is anticipated that the expansion in migration filings will continue which will severely test the Court's ability to respond in a timely manner, particularly in the Sydney region which has the largest number of filings. Unlike the other major capitals, Sydney judges sit in three separate locations. The Court has worked hard to find suitable premises for all of its judges but this has not been achieved. This has obvious impacts on court administration and is inconvenient for practitioners and the public alike.

The Court is very conscious of the need to maintain an appropriate level of service to the community wherever it sits. This year detailed analysis of the Court's workload has been performed, taking into account the location of judges and registries and, in particular, filing levels in locations outside major registries. Some of the Court's circuit locations are relatively remote, some are more proximate to capital city registries. Efficient case management lies at the heart of the Court's mission, and all members of the Court contribute actively to the task of managing a large workload across Australia. Judicial resources are by definition finite and as filings increase in different geographic locations, stresses start to emerge. Further, in a trial court of broad jurisdiction, variations in workload cannot be seen in isolation. Significant increases in one area of work inevitably have an impact on the allocation of resources overall.

As every area of the work of the Court is of equal importance, and each litigant is deserving of comparable treatment, it is critical that the Court has the resources to respond adequately to its workload especially outside of the metropolitan areas.

Several factors are combining to make this increasingly challenging. As noted above, age retirements will now take place on a regular basis and therefore timely appointment of new judges will be needed if the Court is to manage its caseload. In addition, analysis of regional workload indicates there are locations in which filings exceed a level at which regular circuits provide adequately for community need. Additional appointments would enable the Court to improve the level of service to litigants in those locations, and relieve the pressure on those registries currently managing circuits in those locations.

I am also conscious of the health and welfare of members of the Court. A very high workload and associated stress can and does have an effect on health and morale in the Court. Any additional strain from rising demand or the impact of retirements only adds to the pressure on individual judges and their staff.

The capacity to provide judicial services is in large part a question of finance. The budget situation for all federal courts remains strained, and cost pressures continue to mount. The Attorney-General has signalled his intention to review the funding and structure of the federal courts. This includes reinstating the administrative independence of the Federal Circuit Court. The Court has from inception collaborated closely with the other federal courts and in recent years has functioned in a merged administration with the Family Court of Australia. There is agreement on the part of the courts that the present arrangements need reform, and the Court looks forward to engaging with other stakeholders in the process of establishing new, sustainable arrangements for the Court's administration and future budgets.

In conclusion, I wish to acknowledge the efforts of the Court and its administrative staff in maintaining a highly productive and positive approach to meeting the needs of the Australian public. The contribution made by judges of the Court participating in various working groups should also be acknowledged. Despite the constant demands of court work, the Court can and does continue to innovate and to implement new initiatives. This is a reflection of the commitment of all judges and staff of the Court to strive to provide the best possible access to justice for all Australians within the resources available.

Statistics at a glance

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

Family law

Filings

Finalisations

 

2013–14

2012–13

2013–14

2012–13

Final orders

17,565

17,364

16,931

16,936

Interim orders

20,298

20,242

19,926

20,015

Divorce applications

43,634

43,288

42,828

44,817

Other

1860

1724

1806

1712

Total family law

83,357

82,618

81,491

83,480

General federal law

Filings

Finalisations

 

2013–14

2012–13

2013–14

2012–13

Bankruptcy

4285

3984

4010

4105

Migration

3208

1982

2264

1392

Administrative

26

22

24

21

Admiralty

17

17

11

16

Consumer

62

69

74

63

Intellectual property

53

40

39

43

Human rights

79

105

93

93

Industrial

935

762

793

742

Total general federal law

8665

6981

7508

6475

Note: In the 2012–13 Annual Report Intellectual Property was described as Copyright.

Developments during 2013–14

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 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.

Federal Circuit Court goes live with 'Court Excellence'

The Federal Circuit Court has previously publicised its commitment to the International Framework for Court Excellence. Details on the IFCE can be found at www.courtexcellence.com.

In 2013–14 the Court substantially consolidated its implementation of the IFCE by completing a survey of judges and allied staff in accordance with the IFCE. The survey covered critical elements of the Court's performance including: leadership; policy and planning; resources; management of court processes; court user satisfaction; access and affordability; and public confidence.

The internal survey was completed by the majority of judges (57 of the Court's 65 judges) who have provided very robust views on the functioning of the Court and areas in which they say improvement is needed.

Judge Jarrett delivered a report on these findings to the Chief Judge at the Judges' Plenary in May 2014. In general terms, the central finding was that most respondents considered that the Court was well managed and was operating efficiently.

The survey results revealed room for improvement in certain areas and in particular: training and development for both judges and administrative staff of the Court; business processes and practices around the dispatch of the Court's business; communication both within the Court and with court users; and measures to support the health and wellbeing of judges and court staff who regularly work long hours.

The survey results revealed that a large majority of the Court thought that the docket system utilised by the Court served litigants well. On the Court's analysis of the survey data, there is no impetus for a change to the docket system. At the same time, some concern was expressed about the workload expected of members of the Court.

The Chief Judge has asked the Judicial Advisory Committee for court excellence, led by Judge Jarrett, to advise on these matters in 2014–15. This analysis will be augmented by incoming data from administration staff including the Family Court and Federal Court staff who assist the Court with registry and registrar services. Equally important, will be feedback from court users about their insights into the Court.

Development of the Reconciliation Action Plan

Image of the Court's new Reconciliation Action Plan 2014–2016.

The Federal Circuit Court RAP is the first to be developed by an Australian court.

This RAP was prepared and written in collaboration with Reconciliation Australia after Chief Judge Pascoe recognised the opportunity to do so, following on from the work of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Access to Justice Committee's report at the end of 2013 and following the Committee's consultation with legal services who work directly with Aboriginal communities, health services, family violence prevention units and community welfare services. Judge Matthew Myers AM, the first Aboriginal to sit on a Federal Court bench, was also actively involved in the development of the plan.

The RAP outlines real and practical measures to achieve reconciliation, build stronger relations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and provide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients with better access to justice and the family law system through tailored services and procedures. It contains 13 specific practical measures that the Court will adopt across four focus areas, including:

  • relationships – providing access to justice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the Federal Circuit Court and providing opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to build relationships with judges, court and registry staff
  • respect – improving awareness within the Court by developing appropriate cultural competency training to better enhance our delivery of judicial services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients and establishing productive partnerships with appropriate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies and elders
  • opportunities – developing opportunities for members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community to enhance their educational and career prospects, through offering placements and work experience opportunities for law students/graduates and through establishing traineeships and work experience for other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and
  • tracking progress and reporting – reporting on achievements and challenges to Reconciliation Australia and investigating other means to track the RAP progress and report on what has been achieved.

Launch of the Reconciliation Action Plan

The RAP was launched on 31 March 2014 at a traditional 'smoking ceremony' at the National Centre for Indigenous Excellence, Redfern, by the Federal Attorney-General, Senator the Honourable George Brandis QC.

The Court was represented at the launch by Chief Judge John Pascoe AO CVO, Judge Josephine Willis, the chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Access to Justice Committee, Judge Matthew Myers AM, the first Aboriginal man to become a federal judicial officer in Australia, and a number of other Federal Circuit Court judges and staff.

Image of Dr Tom Calma AO, Board of Reconciliation Australia; Federal Attorney-General, the Honourable George Brandis QC; Judge Matthew Myers AM; and Chief Judge John Pascoe AO CVO.

Dr Tom Calma AO, Board of Reconciliation Australia, Federal Attorney-General, the Honourable George Brandis QC, Judge Matthew Myers AM and Chief Judge John Pascoe AO CVO.

The event was attended by a wide range of Indigenous and other community leaders, as well as the Chief Justice of the Federal Court, Chief Justice Allsop, the Human Rights Commissioner, Tim Wilson and Dr Tom Calma AO, from the Board of Reconciliation Australia.

Implementation of the Reconciliation Action Plan

Image of a traditional smoking ceremony.

Traditional smoking ceremony.

Since the launch, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Access to Justice Committee has undertaken a great deal of work to implement the RAP. Reconciliation Week activities were conducted across various registries of the Court including Adelaide, Brisbane, Cairns, Darwin, Newcastle, Parramatta, Sydney, and Townsville. These events provided an opportunity for community members to visit the registry and observe it in operation, as well as learn about the Federal Circuit Court and other stakeholders such as the Aboriginal Legal Service, Legal Aid and Family Relationship Centres.

Further activities and events are being planned and developed which are consistent with the objectives identified in the RAP, including trials of expanded services to Indigenous litigants.

Liaison with the Law Council of Australia

During the year the Federal Circuit Court and the Law Council of Australia 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, and
  • issues surrounding fees.

Liaison with the Family Law Section Regional Committee

In addition to meeting regularly with the Family Law Section, the Court also continued its 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 Court's 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 litigants and practitioners in remote locations by telephone. It is envisaged that this liaison committee will continue to meet in 2014–15.

Website redevelopment

Phase one of the website redevelopment project is now complete. This phase involved detailed user testing and the development of a new design prototype for the Federal Circuit Court website.

Phase two of the project commenced in May 2014 and broadly focuses on the following:

  • migration of the current website to a vendor supported content management platform
  • decommissioning of the Family Law Courts website and moving content into the Federal Circuit Court and Family Court websites
  • automation, where possible, of any unnecessary manual processes with the current content publishing
  • implementation of new business requirements such as workflow, access control etc
  • implementation of the new information architecture for both websites as identified in phase one, and
  • re-design of the presentation layer of the websites in accordance with the high level design specification from phase one.

A review of all website content will run in parallel with the website rebuild so that content is ready for migration when the build is finished.

The new websites will be more contemporary, with a greater focus on client interaction and eservices. The improved navigation, access and revised content will benefit clients of both courts.

It is expected that phase two will be completed in February 2015.

Intranet upgrade

Work continued on finalising technical issues associated with the intranet upgrade project. This included:

  • development work and extensive testing to the Portal and web content manager (WCM) components which have now been successfully migrated to the production servers
  • upgrading and ongoing testing of the search tool in preparation for implementation and configuration
  • commencement of content migration – to date over 2000 content items have been migrated
  • creation of a content inventory, a migration plan and checklist and training resources in preparation for content authors having access to the new WCM
  • completion of Connections integration work, and
  • completion of work to enable access from the intranet to Lotus Notes Databases (e.g. judgments).

Some minor outstanding issues still need to be resolved including implementing a search facility that meets the courts requirements.

A launch date will be set after all technical issues are resolved.

Outlook for 2014–15

In 2014–15, 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
  • implementation of any government decisions arising from the recent review of federal courts funding conducted by KPMG
  • implementation of any government decisions arising from the National Commission of Audit report
  • revised best practice principles for dealing with family violence, and
  • ongoing work concerning the adoption of the International Framework for Court Excellence.

Joint initiatives of the courts

Public information

Throughout 2013–14, the Court continued to produce a range of brochures and fact sheets encompassing all areas of its jurisdiction. The Court's website is the primary communication tool for providing information about the Court. Information available from the site includes details on court processes, forms, fees and charges, dispute resolution information, relevant legislation, publications, circuit details, daily court listings, the Commonwealth Courts Portal (the Portal), as well as contact details and corporate information. The website is regularly updated and provides a subscription service.

In addition to providing public information through the Court's website, information on family law is provided through the Family Law Courts website www.familylawcourts.gov.au. This website is shared with the Family Court and provides a centralised location for all information relating to the federal family law courts.

Throughout 2013–14, the Federal Circuit Court was involved in a number of joint initiatives with the Family Court and the Federal Court. These new and ongoing initiatives included the following:

Access and Inclusion Framework

The Access and Inclusion Framework (the Framework) was developed to guide the preparation and implementation of access and equity plans. Each access and equity plan aims to improve access and remove barriers to the courts' services for particular client groups. Plans under the Framework include the multicultural, family violence, disability, mental health and Indigenous plans.

The Framework is primarily focused on the administrative work of the courts, recognising that access to justice begins well before a client has their first court event and that a client's capacity to participate in court processes is significantly influenced by the quality of information and level of administrative support they receive. Linking to the International Framework for Court Excellence, the Framework has the primary purpose of ensuring the courts meet their access and equity obligations, that plans are consistent and that implementation is coordinated.

The courts' multicultural, Indigenous and family violence plans have been developed and are currently being implemented. Work has commenced to develop the disability and mental health action plans. All implementation activities recognise the budgetary constraints and have relied upon innovation and the expertise of existing staff.

Multicultural Plan

Image of the courts' Multicultural Plan 2013–15.

The Multicultural Plan was developed in response to a Commonwealth Government requirement that all agencies develop such a plan. As part of the Plan's development, the courts engaged Maria Dimopoulos of Myriad Consulting, to undertake a comprehensive review of multicultural access and equity. The review's findings and recommendations have informed the projects implemented under the plan.

The following provides highlights of projects improving access and equity for the courts' culturally and linguistically diverse clients. These have occurred in addition to work undertaken to improve services at a local registry level.

Community language allowance project

The new Community Language Allowance Policy aims to better encourage staff who know another language, and who have regular client contact, to develop and use their language skills at the counter and over the telephone. Under the new policy, eligible staff are paid to achieve and maintain their National Accreditation Authority for Translators and Interpreters, or equivalent qualifications. For the courts' many culturally and linguistically diverse clients, this is one step toward overcoming the language barriers that may prevent them from fully accessing the courts' services and justice.

Plain English and translations

The courts now provide links to LawTermFinder, www.lawtermfinder.mq.edu.au on the courts' websites and in emails sent to clients. The LawTermFinder provides a consistent and maintained source of plain English and translated (Arabic, Vietnamese, Simplified and Traditional Chinese) definitions of family law terms. LawTermFinder is joint project between the Attorney-General's Department and Macquarie University.

Ethnic naming practices project

Through collaboration with the Department of Human Services (DHS), court staff now have intranet access to the DHS online guide to ethnic naming practices. Covering the naming conventions of 66 languages, including some from newly emerging Australian communities, the guide provides information on:

  • the order in which a name appears
  • how children are named
  • if and how a woman's name changes after marriage, divorce or death of a partner, and
  • pronunciation of names.

This guide is particularly helpful for counter staff, staff at the National Enquiry Centre and court officers who have frequent contact with culturally diverse clients.

Cultural competence and the e-learning project

The cultural competence e-learning project aims to provide staff with the knowledge, skills and awareness needed to work competently with culturally diverse clients across a range of service scenarios. The courts are working with DHS and the Western Australian Office of Multicultural Affairs to adapt an existing e-learning program to deliver training within the courts. Work on a range of other projects has progressed, including work on an e-learning induction training package on the use of intrepreters and translators and the identification of high priority publications and forms for translation.

Forced marriage

Meetings were held with a wide range of community organisations on forced marriage, with the outcome being that the courts are now tapped into, and provide information to, an Attorney-General's Department working group who are developing forced marriage resources.

Awards

The courts were recognised at the Migration Council of Australia's Award night, winning the Diversity and the Law Award for ongoing commitment to multiculturalism through the Living in Harmony Initiative, Integrated Client Service Delivery Program and the Multicultural Plan. See page 10 for more information on the Multicultural Plan.

Family Violence Plan

Image of the courts' Family Violence Plan 2014–16.

In 2013–14, the courts developed a joint Family Violence Action Plan. This is a significant piece of work, involving an audit of policies and programs developed in other courts (nationally and internationally) to respond to family violence in the context of family law disputes. This Plan involved a comprehensive consultation process with internal and external stakeholders. It is anticipated that the work under this initiative will constitute the Family Violence Committee's major project in the 2014–15 financial year.

During 2013–14 there were a number of initiatives undertaken by Child Dispute Services to ensure that family violence remains an area that is appropriately canvassed by the clinical staff working for the courts. These include:

Seminar series

The seminar series is a monthly cycle of presentations given by Australian and international experts on family law issues. Attendees include internal family consultants, judges, Regulation 7 family consultants, and family law practitioners. During 2013–14, there were various presentations on family violence (including child maltreatment) in an effort to ensure that clinical staff are kept abreast of the latest empirical and practice trends in this area. The next session on family violence will be delivered by forensic psychologist, Dr Chris Lennings, in September 2014 at the Sydney registry. It will also be available via video link to all other court registries.

Risk screening tool

Child Dispute Services has embarked on a complete review of the process of screening for family violence risk when litigants undertake assessments with family consultants. This has involved adapting the Mediators Assessment of Safety Issues and Concerns – Second Edition (MASIC-2) to a court context, in collaboration with the international authors of the original screening tool. Child Dispute Services has elected to pursue a court-specific version of a tool that emphasises behavioural assessment of risk, rather than more subjective (general) descriptors that tend to be included in many risk assessment tools examining family violence. There are also ongoing discussions about the possibility of parents completing this electronically prior to their initial interviews with a family consultant.

Clinical induction program

All new family consultants are required to undertake a rigorous clinical induction program. This involves attending a series of training sessions via video link during the first six months of their tenure with the Court, and completion of a presentation to their colleagues on a given topic. Family violence is addressed in several of these induction sessions, allowing another pathway via which clinicians at the Court can update their knowledge about the assessment and reporting of family violence.

Clinical training modules

During 2013–14, several family violence clinical training modules were developed and delivered to family consultants around the country. These modules (three x 90 minutes) arose from a research project conducted by the Principal, Child Dispute Services and the Senior Family Consultant (National Professional Development), which explored changes to clinical practice subsequent to the 2012 amendments. The modules focus on professional biases that may influence practice (particularly in the assessment of family violence), ways in which bias and individual attitudes can be contained, and critiquing one's own written reports to ensure that family violence has been appropriately portrayed.

Research/auditing

The family violence reforms contained in the Family Law Legislation Amendment (Family Violence and Other Measures) Act 2011 (Cth) commenced on 7 June 2012. A study was conducted in 2013 to explore whether the family violence reforms had increased family consultants' awareness and reporting of allegations of family violence in parenting matters. It also explored whether family consultants were considering the impact of family violence on children and families and whether their recommendations in their documents had the potential to better protect children and families from family violence. A report on the study titled On the Crest of a Wave is available by emailing communication@familylawcourts.gov.au

Commonwealth Courts Portal

Image of the Commonwealth Courts Portal homepage

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 Portal 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 single central web-based system.

A popular function of the Portal is the ability for users to elect to be notified of any recent activity on their file(s). In 2013–14 more than 170,000 such notifications were sent.

During 2013–14 there was a 30 per cent increase in the number of registered users of the Portal.

The eFiling functions continue to be expanded and a number of enhancements were made to the Portal, including:

  • additional supplementary documents can now be eFiled
  • amended applications can now be eFiled
  • a new feature which displays a list of all orders on a file is now available
  • Live Chat enables parties to chat online with staff at the National Enquiry Centre, and
  • a pop up in the internal Case Management System (Casetrack) allows staff to automatically create a new Portal registration for a client.

Work has also continued to ensure compliance with version 2.0 Level 'AA' of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines by December 2014. A complete end-to-end usability review of the Portal was commenced with a user-experience expert providing new improved screen designs. Development of these screens will commence in the new financial year. Development to allow eFiling of Application for Consent Orders has continued with a view to having it implemented in 2014–15.

The following statistics highlight the significant growth in the number of Portal users as at 30 June 2014:

  • more than 4900 firms now registered (a 20 per cent increase from 30 June 2013)
  • lawyer registrations have increased to almost 10,000 (a 19 per cent increase from 30 June 2013)
  • total registered users exceed 153,000 (a 30 per cent increase from 30 June 2013)
  • around 60 new law firms sign up to the Portal every month, and
  • almost 20 per cent of logins occur outside of normal working hours.

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

Table 1.2: Registered users of the Commonwealth Courts Portal, 2010–11 to 2013–14

 

30 June 2011

30 June 2012

30 June 2013

30 June 2014

Number of law firms registered

2466

3280

4134

4965

Number of lawyers registered

5026

6746

8370

9921

Other users

50,110

75,306

105,604

138,206

Total registered users

57,602

85,332

118,108

153,092

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

Table 1.3: Documents eFiled in the Federal Circuit Court and Family Court 2010–11 to 2013–14

 

2010–11

2011–12

2012–13

2013–14

Adelaide

2353

4912

7121

8927

Albury

166

501

802

1114

Alice Springs

19

109

136

70

Brisbane

18,936

27,379

35,666

41,609

Cairns

209

1076

1350

1918

Canberra

1321

2004

2914

3420

Coffs Harbour

286

863

1000

1452

Dandenong

2217

5331

7594

9251

Darwin

212

359

519

822

Dubbo

125

363

660

874

Hobart

210

562

700

1001

Launceston

575

734

876

902

Lismore

418

1109

1672

2274

Melbourne

10,983

19,329

31,650

37,747

Newcastle

2822

4724

6700

8734

Parramatta

5016

7736

11,101

13,441

Rockhampton

444

746

1311

1664

Sydney

6207

10,466

15,372

18,998

Townsville

1568

2115

2787

2904

Wollongong

430

1444

2352

3341

Total

54,517

91,862

132,283

160,463

Electronic Court File

The Court has continued to work with the Federal Court in the development of the Electronic Court File (ECF). The newly established Federal Circuit Court IT Committee has met with developers and Federal Court staff on several occasions to consider the impact of the ECF on the operations of the Court.

The Federal Court will commence a staged roll-out of the ECF beginning in Adelaide on 14 July 2014. The ECF completely replaces the paper file, and will be the official court record. Paper documents may be relied upon during case management, trials or appeals, but these documents will emanate from an electronic file and they will not form part of the court record. The Federal Circuit Court will not be part of the initial roll-out, but will participate in a pilot in Melbourne from late September 2014 to gauge the operational impacts of the ECF.

Aside from the ECF, the Federal Court has continued to promote the use of its electronic filing application, eLodgment. This application is also used to electronically file Federal Circuit Court general federal law documents. eLodgment was significantly enhanced during the reporting year in response to feedback from court users and in preparation for the ECF. The enhancements included:

  • increasing the size limit for documents from 10mb to 30mb
  • reducing the lock-out period for forgotten passwords from 30 minutes to five minutes, and
  • developing information for users of eLodgment about the most effective ways to prepare their documents for electronic lodgment, including information about reducing the size of large documents without compromising quality.

In 2013–14 the numbers of active users using eLodgment increased by 35 per cent to 7412 and over 64,000 documents were electronically lodged. This equates to 48 per cent of all documents filed during the year in both the Federal Circuit Court and the Federal Court. Over 39 per cent of Federal Circuit Court general federal law documents were eLodged (25,838).

Young Employees Advisory Group

The final meeting for the 2013 Young Employees Advisory Group (YEAG) took place in Canberra in November 2013, finishing a busy year for the four project groups. The groups presented their final reports on their projects to the CEO's Management Advisory Group.

Each of the groups managed the following outcomes:

Clear clicking

This project reviewed and revised a number of pages on the Federal Circuit Court, Family Law Courts and Family Court websites to provide clarity in respect to forms and procedures for self-represented litigants.

Self-represented litigant

This project managed the production of a short, instructional video on divorce service titled How to apply for a divorce: serving divorce papers that is now available on Federal Circuit Court YouTube channel www.youtube.com/user/federalcircuitcourt and the Family Court YouTube channel www.youtube.com/user/familycourtAU.

ASPIRE

This project developed a successful staff recognition program. The first award was presented at the National Support Office in 2014.

Education and exchange

This project created an exchange program which involved the exchange of staff between the Federal Circuit Court, Family Court and the ACT State Courts in 2014. The group also organised an internship program with Melbourne universities that will commence in 2014.

During the year YEAG introduced a number of new ideas and ways of thinking to the courts. They were also given the opportunity to be mentored and work closely with senior executives and attend meetings in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne. This initiative allowed members to collaborate with staff in different locations, experiences that their day-to-day roles would not usually have them encounter.

Image of the 2013 Young Employees Advisory Group at their final meeting in Canberra in November 2013.

(L–R standing): Steve Agnew, Jillian Morrison, Katharine Garaty, Claire McFadden, Sarah Dupe, Richard Foster, Ebony Pilon, Rosemary Brett, Sienna Moore, Leah Reid, Lisa Clark and Drew Baker. (L–R seated): Elizabeth Pane, Sally Bastick, Stephanie Page, Jaime-Lee Simons, Nina McKeon and Dan Snow.

Client Service Senior Manager's Group

Chaired by the Director Court Services, Strategy and Policy, the Client Service Senior Managers' Group (CSSMG) comprises registry managers and registry and judicial service managers. The group aims to be innovative in the development of new ideas and seeks 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 2013–14 including:

  • the simplification and streamlining of photocopying and fee processing for clients seeking copies of orders or divorce certificates
  • the internal review of outstanding setting down and trial fees, which has led to greater compliance and system enhancements
  • the authorisation for staff to administer oaths and affirmations
  • the review of mail and courier processes to ensure the most efficient and cost effective method is being used, and
  • the ongoing exploration of eFiling procedures to ensure that the most efficient use of the technology is being implemented in response to the growth in eFiling.

There are other initiatives that are still under development, which will be implemented in the next financial year.

New standards of practice for family assessments and reporting

Family reports are a very important tool to assist in resolving or determining disputes over children, and judges often rely heavily on the assessments in family reports as evidence. Consequently there are often many questions and issues that clients and the legal profession have about the quality and validity of the family reports and how the assessments are conducted.

In Australia there has, until now, not been any public document designed to inform the judiciary, the legal profession or the clients as to what can be expected as the minimum standards in the process of preparing family reports.

In order to address this issue, the courts have drafted the Australian Standards of Practice for Family Assessments and Reporting, basing the principles on the existing practice guidelines for Child Dispute Services and similar documents from overseas, such as the guidelines produced by the United States-based Association of Family and Conciliation Courts (AFCC). The Australian Standards address the local context and assessment of such important issues as family violence, cultural issues and issues for Indigenous clients.

The Australian Standards promote good practices in conducting and reporting on full family assessments by social workers and psychologists in family law matters, such as those completed under s65G of the Family Law Act and family reports commissioned privately.

The Standards:

  • provide information to the judiciary, agencies, legal professionals and clients who utilise the services of family assessors to increase the understanding as to what constitutes good practice in family assessments and reporting
  • inform as to what can be expected as a minimum standard of practice when conducting family assessments and preparing reports, and
  • address some common issues and concerns about family assessments and the processes of assessments and reporting, such as whether psychometric testing or home visits should be part of the assessment process.

The draft Standards have been through an initial round of consultation with internal and external social science stakeholders and were widely supported. Feedback from these consultations has been incorporated into a second draft and consultations are now proceeding on this with peak legal bodies in the family law area. The final version of the Standards was presented at the first conference of the newly formed Australian chapter of the AFC in Melbourne in August 2014.

Overall it is hoped this initiative of the courts will lead to a more informed community, fewer complaints based on misunderstandings, and a higher standard in the reports completed across the whole sector.

Sydney Family Law Settlement Service

The Sydney Family Law Settlement Service pilot commenced in May 2012 in the Sydney registry. 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 Court had been working with the Law Society/Bar Association for a number of months to finalise the terms of the service. This was finalised in May 2014. Since May 2014, judges of the Federal Circuit Court and the Family Court have been referring property matters that they believe will be assisted by the scheme.

The Law Society facilitates 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 are engaged to conduct the mediations.

Given the scheme has only recently been implemented in 2014, complete data is not available for the financial year. However, the known results indicate it has been well received by the practitioners who have participated in the service and practitioners have appeared eager to take up the opportunity to participate further.

Statement of strategic intent

Image of the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court Statement of Strategic Intent.

In August 2013, the updated statement of strategic intent was released to reflect the challenges and priorities for 2013–14. The most recent version of the statement built on the work in the original release in July 2012 to ensure the areas of focus remained relevant.

The priority actions for 2013–14 were as follows:

  • Provide input, advice and leadership into the Attorney-General's Department led review of the courts
  • Advance and integrate the seven key areas in the International Framework for Court Excellence and assist the courts in the development of their strategic plans
  • Manage services and implement ongoing savings measures in support of our budget provision and determine priorities and any cost saving measures with the Heads of Jurisdictions, including possible restructure of the service model and/or funding arrangements
  • Implement recommendations from the Federal Circuit Court's Reconciliation Action Plan
  • Implement changes arising from the family violence amendments that were implemented in 2012, and through the Family Violence Committee, prepare the courts' family violence strategy for 2014–16
  • Advance the development of an electronic court file and electronic self-help services for court users for less complex enquiries/transactions
  • Progress the development of new methods of payment that reduce processing for client service staff as soon as practicable and optimise fee collections and debt recovery at an administrative level
  • Continue to implement projects responding to the Federal Circuit Court of Australia name change and to the legislative change formalising the creation of the single administration
  • Implement appropriate systems to enable the single administration
  • Conduct the next instalment of the Family Law User Satisfaction Survey so that we are continually reviewing and improving our services for court users and report any resulting improvement initiatives to court users, and
  • Deliver staff development, succession planning, workforce planning and other initiatives to ensure that we have people capable and ready for future demands and our people are well supported.

At 30 June 2014, significant progress had been made on the majority of the priority actions with some continuing over the next 12 months.

Live Chat

Image of the courts’ Live Chat logo.

Access to Live Chat is now available via the courts' websites. Live Chat enables a party using the website to chat online to a staff member at the National Enquiry Centre (NEC) to ask procedural questions about filing in the family law system. They can also chat online if they have any queries about eFiling on the Commonwealth Courts Portal.

Currently, clients can chat with the NEC about issues such as:

  • Divorce
  • Parenting
  • Property
  • eFiling, and
  • General.

Live Chat is a cost effective and easily manageable channel of communication for the courts. Staff can multi-task and manage up to four conversations at once. It also provides a convenient way for clients to access the courts and engage with client service officers. Clients can continue browsing the website and easily view online content while chatting.

At 30 June 2014 the NEC was averaging 120 Live Chats per day.

YouTube

Image of the YouTube logo.

Image of the Federal Circuit Court’s YouTube homepage.

The courts have created YouTube channels to provide information to clients in a different way to the usual form or fact sheet. Videos currently available include:

  • How to apply for a divorce: serving divorce papers, and
  • The Commonwealth Courts Portal.

Visit the Federal Circuit Court's YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/federalcircuitcourt

Q-Flow statistics on websites

This initiative involves transferring data from the courts' client queue management system (Q-Flow) concerning client service waiting times and the number of clients waiting for service at registry counters to the courts' websites.

This provides lawyers and litigants with a view of wait times in the registry in real time. It informs lawyers and litigants about the best time to visit registries, when demand is lower and they are likely to spend less time waiting. It also assists registry staff in providing a better client service.

This is a small, low cost initiative aimed at improving customer service, providing better visibility for litigants and lawyers regarding wait times, and uses existing resources efficiently and effectively by spreading demand across business hours.

Q-Flow operates at the Adelaide, Brisbane, Dandenong, Melbourne, Parramatta and Sydney registries.

IBM 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.

Connections has continued to provide a forum for planning activities and projects as well as supporting communication and collaboration across the courts.

Key achievements in 2013–14 include:

  • growth in the number of communities from 128 at 30 June 2013, to 143 at 30 June 2014
  • commencement of work on creating a court-wide wiki to support the work of client services. Wikis provide a centralised platform to share information and to date have been utilised as knowledge bases for professional development, procedures and training materials as well as supporting day-to-day operations across the courts, and
  • work on integrating the profiles, wikis and blog applications with the courts' intranets has been completed and will be available to staff when the new intranets are launched.

Community relationships and consultation

Registry managers of the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court and district registrars of the Federal Court assist the Court with community relationship building.

Much of this work is undertaken at the local level. Engagement with local communities, community-based organisations concerned with family support and the family law system, community forums, law societies, family law pathway networks, volunteer networks, and other government agencies, including many at the State level, are something that the Court has been reporting in some detail in recent years in an appendix to the annual report.

The reporting shows the different local approaches, reflecting local needs and opportunities, and capacity for action. Activities are highlighted in Appendix H.

Replacement of BlackBerry fleet

During 2013–14 the courts made a decision to move away from BlackBerry devices and replace them with Apple iPhone smartphones. There are 250 devices to replace and the first tranche of 50 devices has now been implemented. The remaining devices will be replaced in 2014–15. The new devices are being used in conjunction with Good Software for email and calendar services.

Infrastructure improvements

During 2013–14 much of the courts' IT infrastructure was upgraded including new server and networking equipment in all registries apart from Darwin and Alice Springs which will be completed in 2014–15.

Other infrastructure improvements in the financial year included:

  • Bring Your Own Device Policy approved for smartphones and tablets
  • 1450 desktop PCs and 200 notebook computers were upgraded to Windows 7 and Office 2010 to take full advantage of the new hardware rolled out in 2013
  • a new WAN contract which will deliver increased bandwidth was successfully negotiated and is awaiting signature by the Attorney-General before it can be implemented
  • work has commenced on moving to a new Internet Gateway
  • a review of Citrix is currently underway to look at options to improve performance, and
  • LAN cabling was upgraded in several registries.