The year in review
From the Chief Judge
Over the past financial year there have been major changes in the Court's administrative arrangements and judiciary.
Nine new appointments were made to the Court to replace judges who retired and Judge Dominica Whelan who died in office. Judge Whelan is sadly missed. I wish to place on the record, my thanks to those judges who have retired for their dedicated service to the Court and to again welcome our new judges.
The Court's workload has steadily increased and the timely replacement of retiring judges is critical to the Court's ability to deal with its workload. Additional judges are also needed to cope with increased jurisdiction, greater volume, and increasing length of trials.
During the year, the Courts Administration Legislation Amendment Act 2016 (Cth) was passed by the Parliament. From 1 July 2016, a new administrative regime applies to the Federal Court of Australia, the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia. A single entity was created with the three courts operating autonomously, supported by a single Corporate Service team. Given the difficult financial circumstances of all the courts, and especially the financial challenges for the family law system, this administrative reform is crucial to the long-term, stable and sustainable funding of the courts. Family law registries have become the responsibility of the Federal Circuit Court in a separate change that also took effect from 1 July 2016.
The conclusion of the financial year marks the retirement of the Court's Chief Executive Officer, Mr Richard Foster PSM. Mr Foster has worked within court administration for over 50 years, and has been the joint Chief Executive Officer of the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia for the past eight years.
The previous annual report predicted a large influx of Migration cases following legislative amendments that affected illegal maritime arrivals; asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat. This influx of cases was termed the 'asylum legacy caseload'. As discussed later in this annual report, the lower-than-expected number of appeals to the Court from this cohort of applicants was due to a delay as a result of the legislation changes and the establishment of the Independent Assessment Authority. The Court expects an increase in filings in the coming year which will continue into the foreseeable future.
During the year, the Court commenced using the Electronic Court File (ECF) system. Commencing in New South Wales, the ECF system will be used nationally across all general federal law jurisdictions. New originating applications in all proceedings (other than in family law) will be processed via the Court's eLodgement system to create an ECF, and may be lodged either by clients externally or with assistance from court registry staff. The ECF system will greatly assist the Court and its staff in filing and tracking case management and will enable a uniform file management system across all registries of the Court.
I note the continued success of the Notice of Risk, instituted in January 2015, requiring all parties in parenting matters in family law to notify the Court of any factors that may pose a risk to the child(ren). The Notice of Risk enables the Court to meet the statutory requirements arising under amendments to the definition of family violence that commenced in 2012. It also provides an early opportunity to notify State and Territory welfare agencies in matters where risk has been alleged.
The Court's Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP) completed its first phase and will be renewed. The RAP outlines the manner in and to which the Court engages with Indigenous communities across Australia to improve access to justice for Indigenous people. Judges of the Court have assisted with establishing regional family law pathways networks with a focus on Indigenous law. An Aboriginal family law education 'Roadshow' was conducted in Redfern and in Broken Hill, attended by community members and judges of the Court, organised under the auspices of the new Far Western Aboriginal Family Law Pathways Network. The Court will continue to work to improve access to justice for Indigenous Australians over the coming years.
The Court looks forward to another busy and productive year.
Statistics at a glance
|Total family law||84,920||86,380||81,949||81,744|
|General federal law||Filings||Finalisations|
|Total general federal law||8649||8961||8383||7807|
Note: Changes to previously published figures. The Court continually conducts data quality activities on its electronic case data. This is done to ensure that our case management system, as best as it can, reflects the information that is contained on the paper-based file. Due to the complex nature of the data captured, and the changing circumstances of the case, it is not unusual for data entries needing to be updated and refreshed. As a result of the activities in the past few years, the Court has decided to entirely refresh the historical data for the previous four years. This means that figures published in this report for historical years may not always be the same as those published in previous annual reports. Any changes in figures should be relatively insignificant.
Developments during 2015–16
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 meetings 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. Meetings were conducted via telephone links, with practitioners well represented. Discussions covered a range of matters including the practices associated with attendance at court (by telephone) by litigants and practitioners in remote locations.
International Framework for Court Excellence
The Federal Circuit Court is committed to the International Framework for Court Excellence. Details on this framework can be found at www.courtexcellence.com
During 2015–16, the Court continued to respond to priority areas identified in the survey of judges and staff conducted in the previous year. Areas of particular interest include:
The Court Policy Advisory Committee approved a new policy to support judicial education, which was recommended by Judge Jarrett. This policy has now been implemented.
Induction for judicial support staff
An area identified for improvement was the induction program for new chambers staff and ongoing professional development opportunities. The Court revised this program through the establishment of an experienced working group, led by Judge Henderson.
The Court Excellence survey results confirmed that the judges endorse the docket approach to case management. This case management approach continues to underpin the work of the Court and is led by Judge Baumann who is the Case Management Judge for the Court.
While the survey results reinforced the importance of internal communication and information exchange, focus was placed on reforms for the Court's future governance and management framework due to the impending changes under the Courts Administration Legislation Amendment Act 2016 (Cth) on 1 July 2016.
Judge Jarrett who chairs the Committee on Court Excellence, made a presentation at the Singapore State Courts Conference 'Judiciary of the Future', on the work of the Court. This address was extremely well received by the international audience and is an example of the Court's international work.
Access and inclusion
The Court continues to develop and implement plans under its access and inclusion framework. The framework aims to ensure all clients, particularly vulnerable and disadvantaged clients, receive the assistance they need to access the Court.
The framework acknowledges that justice begins well before a litigant 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 the level of administrative support they receive.
Linking to the International Framework for Court Excellence, the framework also takes a broader view across the shared infrastructure needed to support the delivery of accessible services (e.g. information technology, training and performance development) as well as identifying the links, approaches, synergies and principles that affect justice as a whole.
The Court recognises that people do not neatly fit into a single target client group; hence the Court has tried to adopt a flexible model of service delivery that allows staff to tailor services to the individual's need.
Cultural competency eLearning
The courts' cultural competency eLearning package, which forms part of the courts' Multicultural Action Plan, was launched in October 2015. The package consists of six modules which can be completed over a period of time, allowing staff to build on knowledge and awareness.
The eLearning package aims to:
- improve knowledge and understanding of the wide range of culturally diverse communities who access the courts
- use critical reflection to understand the impact of stereotypes, and
- provide staff with practical skills to adapt and deliver services to best meet the needs of culturally and linguistically diverse clients.
The eLearning package contributes to the courts' overall access and equity outcomes by providing staff with information to assist in reducing the barriers experienced by culturally and linguistically diverse clients when accessing court services.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Access to Justice
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Access to Justice Committee continues to coordinate the implementation of the Court's RAP and the Court's engagement with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities around Australia. This work has been with the help of the Indigenous Community Consultative members working with judges and staff.
A number of events and activities occurred throughout the year to further the Court's RAP aspirations.
National Reconciliation Week events
In registries around Australia, judges and staff of the Court organised events to celebrate and mark National Reconciliation Week. Some of the events included:
- Newcastle registry hosted a light lunch for judges and local Aboriginal elders with a presentation by Terry Lee of the Miromaa Aboriginal Language and Technology Centre
- Parramatta registry hosted a lunch, which included a Welcome to Country and speech by Uncle Greg. The lunch was attended by representatives of the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS) who spoke to staff on topics including the work of the ALS, the challenges faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander litigants in family law proceedings, and how registry staff can assist them through the Court process
- Melbourne registry held an afternoon tea and conversation session in front of the RAP painting in the foyer of the building. This afternoon tea included judges, staff and attendees from community legal centres and Aboriginal organisations
- Cairns registry hosted a lunch for eight Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander law students from two local universities. The lunch was also attended by Aboriginal lawyers, Josephine Akee AO and current ATSI liaison officer Dennis Remedio who cooked traditional coconut damper
- Brisbane registry hosted a morning tea which was attended by judicial officers from Federal and State courts, legal practitioners from Legal Aid Queensland and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service, and Indigenous law students, and the
- Darwin registry hosted a morning tea and informal discussions with various organisations including representatives from Relationships Australia NT (including their Aboriginal Islander Cultural Advisors), Aboriginal Interpreter Service, and legal practitioners from Northern Territory Legal Aid Commission and the North Australian Aboriginal Family Legal Service. There was also attendance by telephone from Alice Springs by Relationships Australia, Northern Territory Legal Commission, Central Australian Aboriginal Legal Aid Service, Central Australian Aboriginal Family Legal Unit and Central Australian Women's Legal Service.
Aboriginal Family Law Roadshow
In February 2016, Judge Charlotte Kelly and Judge Matthew Myers attended the Aboriginal Family Law Roadshow in Broken Hill. The Roadshow, one of many held in New South Wales, was aimed at providing Aboriginal communities with knowledge about alternatives to the care and protection system.
Judge Kelly and Judge Myers described the differences between the Federal Circuit Court and the Children's Court. They explained that the Federal Circuit Court is a court that allows Aboriginal families to provide their own solutions to keeping a child safe within the family, prior to intervention from the Department of Family and Community Services.
Message stick journey
On 13 February 2016 in Canberra, the Federal Circuit Court sent a message stick on a 12 month journey around Australia. The aim is to stimulate a national discussion about the sensitive issues of child abuse, neglect and the rates of removal of Aboriginal children from their families. The launch coincided with the eight year anniversary of Kevin Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generation. Judge Matthew Myers, the nation's only Indigenous judge, played a key role in the initiative. So far, the message stick has travelled to Redfern, Broken Hill and Wilcannia. It will continue to travel to various locations and events over the year.
Preparing the next Reconciliation Action Plan
The Reconciliation Action Plan 2014–2016 was the first to be developed by an Australian court. Judge Willis, chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Access to Justice Committee, together with other representatives of the Court, have worked with Reconciliation Australia to develop the second RAP. It is anticipated that this RAP will be signed in July 2016.
Associates and deputy associates survey
In June 2015, the Resource Review Committee of the Federal Circuit Court conducted a survey to better understand the roles, work practices, workload, interactions and other issues related to the associate and deputy associate (chambers staff) roles. The survey was completed by 104 of the 126 associates and deputy associates.
In August 2015 a comprehensive report presenting the data from the survey and making findings and recommendations was submitted to the Resource Review Committee. The Resource Review Committee approved the report and the 16 recommendations contained therein. The committee prioritised the recommendations.
In October 2015 the report and prioritised recommendations were approved by the Policy Advisory Committee of the Court. Subsequently, the Chief Judge gave approval for the implementation of the first priority recommendation being:
That the Court develop a good practice, formal induction program that meets the needs of new associates and deputy associates, chambers and the Court.
Chambers' staff eLearning induction
The Resource Review Committee established the chambers' staff eLearning induction project to implement the first recommendation arising from the associates and deputy associates survey and its companion report. The project team convened in January 2016 with the project due for completion in December 2016.
The objective of the project is to design, develop and build a national eLearning induction program for Federal Circuit Court chambers' staff.
The program will support and integrate with existing induction initiatives such as the session with the Principal Registrar, registry orientations and chambers-specific inductions. It will guide new chambers staff through a coordinated and structured induction program which:
- provides core induction information including links to existing resources
- provides checklists for induction activities, and
- directs staff, at key points, to face-to-face, telephone and other induction activities (such as briefings, registry tours, training and buddying).
The use of eLearning as a vehicle for guiding induction was selected for a range of reasons including its capacity to be updated in real time as required, deliver consistent information to a geographically dispersed group, incorporate a range of learning tools such as quizzes, podcasts, videos, internal and external links, track progress and participation, link directly to the Court's IT systems where required information is stored, deliver a low per unit cost induction program (when compared to the cost of delivering face-to-face courses), be self-paced and deliver induction at times that suits chambers.
The project aims to deliver a range of benefits for new chambers staff, those responsible for their induction, their chamber's colleagues, the judiciary and the broader Federal Circuit Court administration. These benefits include:
- national consistency
- new staff who are equipped for their roles
- support for registry managers and team leaders in supervising and coordinating induction
- support staff responsible for delivering face-to-face sessions, briefings and the like
- reduced productivity loss associated with new staff
- better quality service delivery to court users and key stakeholders, and
- reduction in workload for chambers at commencement.
Judge-led case management – Australian style
From 19 to 23 October 2015, Judge Baumann, National Coordinator of Case Management, conducted training of judges from Singapore and New Zealand on 'Judge-led case management – Australian style' in Brisbane.
The week was designed to encourage discussions as to effective case management techniques between major regional trial courts (being the Federal Circuit Court of Australia, Family Justice Courts of Singapore and the District Court of New Zealand), through a combination of demonstrations, consultations and training specifically designed to show the Australian style of judge-led case management, and with a view to visiting judges assessing and developing further strategies that may be adaptable to their unique court system and litigation culture.
The program included visiting judges observing a duty list, discussions about the various support services used in the judge-led case management approach including meeting with a registrar, private mediator, coordinator of Child Dispute Services, and a representative from Legal Aid Queensland.
The sharing of ideas throughout the week enhanced the development of value adding case management approaches for all three jurisdictions.
In May 2016, Judge Baumann travelled to Singapore to provide further assistance and guidance in the implementation of a docket system and imparting his practical tips for case management in a docket system.
This training followed on from the 'Judge-Led Case Management – Australian Style' training conducted in October 2015 and training conducted by Judge Baumann in Singapore in September 2014.
As the Family Court of Singapore has recently implemented a docket system, the training was focused on the Federal Circuit Court's judge-led case management approach, philosophy of the docket system, case management innovations, and workflow and listing practices.
Topics covered in the training included:
- an overview of the docket system in the Federal Circuit Court of Australia including the rationale for why this system was chosen
- the practice of how and when matters are docketed
- robust case management practices including managing complex cases and managing litigants and lawyers, and
- the future of the docket system – trends and statistics in Australia and elsewhere.
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 Portal provides free web-based access to information about cases that are before these courts.
After registering, lawyers and parties can keep track of their cases, identify documents that have been filed and view outcomes, orders made and future court dates. 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 files. In 2015–16 more than 313,000 such notifications were sent.
The eFiling functions continue to be expanded and a number of enhancements were made to the Portal, including:
- enabling document viewer functionality for Federal Court files: right clicking on an eLodged PDF in the documents filed menu now displays a list of unrepresented litigants and law firms that have viewed the document
- available court dates now display the first appropriate return date up to 365 days away, plus the available dates over the next 80 days. Previously the search finished after 110 days, and
- a new function to allow members of the public to pay setting down, hearing and financial conference fees online.
The following statistics highlight the significant growth in the number of Portal users as at 30 June 2016:
- 6843 firms now registered (up from 5943 at 30 June 2015)
- lawyer registrations have increased to 14,031 (up from 12,007 at 30 June 2015), and
- total registered users now at 247,887 (up from 196,865 at 30 June 2015).
|30 June 2013||30 June 2014||30 June 2015||30 June 2016|
|Number of law firms registered||4134||4965||5943||6843|
|Number of lawyers registered||8370||9921||12,007||14,031|
|Total registered users||118,108||153,092||196,865||247,887|
In Western Australia there were 8810 documents eFiled during 2015–16.
Major Casetrack enhancement
Casetrack is the courts' case management system introduced in 2002. A major enhancement is currently underway to improve its useability. The changes will introduce new and updated functionality, including modern browser-based technology and simplified processes for case management. The first new module was implemented in March 2014. Development of additional functionality continued during 2015–16 with functions for management of fees.
New functionality was also written to allow the courts to manage divorce hearings electronically. Those functions have been trialled in some registries during 2015–16.
Live Chat was launched on the courts' websites in April 2014. Live Chat is a cost effective and easily manageable channel of communication. Staff can multi-task and manage up to four conversations at once and it also provides a convenient way for clients to access the courts and engage with client service officers.
Live Chat Statistics
- 110,772 live chats since its launch
- average 261 live chats per day
- 31 per cent of questions are about Portal support
- 69 per cent are general questions, and
- applying for a divorce and parenting applications are the most popular Live Chat topics.
The Federal Circuit Court's YouTube channel has been operating since October 2013. There are a range of videos available to help litigants prepare for and understand court processes.
Three new videos were produced in 2015–16:
- Why am I seeing a family consultant? 5–8 years
- Why am I seeing a family consultant? 9–12 years, and
- eFiling your family law matter in the Commonwealth Courts Portal.
There are now six videos on the channel; combined there has been 65,688 minutes watched and 17,639 views.
The top three videos are: How to apply for divorce: serving divorce papers; Court Tour and About the Commonwealth Courts Portal.
Visit the Federal Circuit Court's YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/user/federalcircuitcourt
Divorce moves online
Significant work has been undertaken in both courts to develop a fully electronic divorce file. The final stage of the work – to enable the capacity to scan, browse and upload documents into Casetrack – was completed in January 2016.
Since the Family Court's Practice Direction No. 6 of 2003, almost all divorce applications are now filed in the Federal Circuit Court of Australia.
Moving to a completely electronic divorce file is a significant shift away from paper filing, to eFiling using the interactive online form in the Commonwealth Courts Portal.
eFiling has many benefits:
- there is no need to visit or queue at registries
- filing fee payments are processed securely online
- 24/7 access to court files
- less chance for errors in applications (step-by-step guide)
- option to select the most suitable court date, and
- the option to receive email notifications and alerts about the status of matters.
As part of this strategy the How do I… apply for divorce? web page has been redeveloped as a dynamic interactive page to assist clients with applying for divorce, and a new How do I… register for the Commonwealth Courts Portal and eFile an application for divorce? has also been launched.
The Application for Divorce Kit is no longer available on the website. Clients who for some reason (including no internet, no credit card, fee reduction for financial hardship, no printer/scanner) cannot eFile their divorce application, can contact the National Enquiry Centre to request an electronic or hard copy of the kit.
Online proof of divorce
An online proof of divorce request process was introduced in March 2015 to streamline the process for people wanting to obtain a copy of their divorce order from the courts. The process involves a person completing an online interactive form and submitting payment online by credit card. The Court then provides an original copy of the divorce.
The process has been very successful and to date 12,149 requests have been made since the online interactive from was introduced.
The new process has also streamlined the process for the courts in reducing the amount of back office paperwork and time to process the requests.
Registry wait numbers – in real time
Lawyers and litigants can check wait times in the registry, in real time, from the courts' websites, allowing informed decisions about the best time to visit registries, when wait times are less. 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 using our existing resources efficiently and effectively by spreading demand across business hours.
Counter waiting times are available for the Adelaide, Brisbane, Dandenong, Melbourne, Parramatta and Sydney registries.
The courts' new intranets were launched on 23 June 2016.
The intranets, which have been re-branded as 'The Source' to better reflect the role of providing a source of information, have a clean, professional new look and feel and include the following features:
- user-friendly navigation including a mega-menu and streamlined access to information
- 'Enterprise Search' which allows staff to search the intranets, websites and Connections in a single place
- integration of some Connections functionality, including wiki and blog feeds and the ability to search profiles from the homepage
- an 'Activity Stream' on the homepage, which alerts staff about new and updated policies, procedures and forms
- broad coverage of news from across the courts, including images for the main news item
- the ability to toggle between the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court intranets, and
- a 'How do I' section.
Connections have continued to provide a forum for planning activities and projects as well as supporting communication and collaboration across the courts.
Our National Enquiry Centre utilise Connections as a knowledge base, training resource and communication tool and consider it a critical resource in responding to and assisting clients with their enquiries.
Key achievements in 2015–16 include:
- an upgrade to version 5 which provides users with a more modern, clean and intuitive interface as well as new features which further support communication, collaboration and innovation across the courts
- growth in the number of communities to 157 as at 30 June 2016
- increased participation and use of wikis as staff discover how useful they are for providing a centralised platform to share information. There has been an increase in staff interacting around the information through comments and recommendations, and
- work continues on the Registry Services wiki which will support staff by providing improved access to procedures and processes. A card sort exercise was undertaken to assist in developing an improved structure for the information in the wiki.
During 2015–16 a number of changes and upgrades were made to the IT infrastructure to meet the courts' needs and improve performance and stability.
Infrastructure improvements in the financial year included:
- direct network drive mapping between registries offering court staff seamless access to shared drives and files when travelling
- implementation of a new remote access solution
- courtroom technology replacement for Townsville registry
- courtroom technology replacement for Canberra courtroom three
- planning for the courts' merger with the Federal Court elevated; work commenced joining the WAN (Wide Area Network) and the Finance 1 system, and
- IT infrastructure was installed in new premises in Sydney (Level 13, 80 William Street).
Telephone/video link attendance request form
The goal of the Federal Circuit Court is to provide a simple and more accessible alternative to litigation in the Federal Court and the Family Court. To achieve this, the Court has embraced the use of electronic means of attendance to reduce cost and inconvenience to legal practitioners and litigants in regional or remote areas. To ensure the Court achieves its goals and objectives, the Court is increasingly conducting procedural and urgent hearings by video-link and telephone.
As a result of engagement with the Family Law Section Regional Committee of the Law Council of Australia, concerns were identified with the process of applying to attend by electronic means, specifically variations in the processes across registries and chambers which has caused difficulties for regional legal practitioners who have matters in various registries and before various judges. As a result of the concerns raised, the Court implemented a standard process and form in February 2016, in conjunction with the Family Law Section Regional Committee of the Law Council of Australia and adopted by the Case Management Judges and Legal Committee.
The form is not a prescribed form. Individual judges may continue to accept requests to attend by telephone by other means at their discretion. However, this form will be accepted by all chambers, ensuring litigants and legal practitioners have a clear and readily available means to apply to appear by electronic means. It is available at www.federalcircuitcourt.gov.au
Changes in 2016–17
Family law registry services
From 1 July 2016, the Court will be responsible for the delivery of family law registry services to the Federal Circuit Court and the Family Court when the budgets of the two courts are split. This change is a result of a decision by the Chief Judge and Chief Justice to transfer responsibility for running the registries to the Federal Circuit Court. This is a separate but parallel process to the amalgamation of corporate services.
Registry services delivery strategy (family law) – towards 2020
The Registry Services Delivery Strategy was developed in 2014 and a number of the key areas identified in the strategy have been progressed, including the development of the electronic divorce. As part of the review cycle, the strategy was updated in February 2016 to reflect the progress since its development and rather than confine the strategy a set time-frame, it was deemed appropriate to extend the strategy towards 2020.
Registry services (general federal law)
The Federal Court of Australia provides registry services for the Federal Circuit Court in relation to its non-family law matters. The principal registry of the Federal Court is located in Sydney and there is a district registry in each capital city. The district registries receive applications and related documents on behalf of the Court. They also assist judges of the Court, practitioners and litigants.
In the 2015–16 Budget, the Government outlined reforms that would see the corporate functions of the Federal Circuit Court and Family Court merged with the Federal Court of Australia to form a single administrative body with a single appropriation. The merge is to commence on 1 July 2016. The reform preserves the courts' functional and judicial independence while pursuing efficient and effective delivery of shared corporate services for all the courts.