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Estimates: Family Court questions

Estimates & Committees
Penny Wright 18 Nov 2013

Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee 
Family Court of Australia 

18 November, 2013

Senator WRIGHT: I would like to follow on from that line of questioning and have a few more questions to flesh out some of those answers a bit more. The Family Court's annual report for 2012-13 indicates that it fell short of certain key performance targets. As reported in the Australian newspaper examples of that are that it only delivered 51 per cent of judgements within three months of hearing although the target is 75 per cent. There is a target that 75 per cent of matters pending conclusion must be less than 12 months old but my understanding from the report was that the result this year declined to 70 per cent. What has the court identified as the most significant impediments to meeting key performance indicators when they are not being met?

Mr Foster: Many of those indicators come about because of the courts dealing with significant backlogs. Some of those cases are quite old and therefore it impacts on the performance indicator. In reality the court has a clearance rate of over 100 per cent. It is currently running to about 101 or 102 per cent. The Family Court is clearing work faster than it is coming in. The Federal Circuit Court, which is basically the workhorse of the federal courts, has a clearance rate of something like 98 per cent, so it is not dealing with the amount of work that is coming into its jurisdiction. If that is maintained eventually there is going to be a significant backlog of cases, which will be old cases and that reflects on the KPIs. That is the primary reason for not meeting necessarily all those performance indicators, but we do meet a fair number of them as well. That situation I think is improving significantly. It is important to note too that, in relation to filings of final orders, something like 85 to 90 per cent of filings now are in the Federal Circuit Court and about 10 to 15 per cent, depending on when you cut the figures, are in the Family Court of Australia. Those filings are balanced out over the last several years. It seems a bit like a sensible mix of filings.

Senator WRIGHT: What would you attribute the backlog to that you have been dealing with?

Mr Foster: There has just been a significant increase in the number of cases over a period of years. They dropped off for a while and now they have come back. We have had a greater increase in general federal law in the Federal Circuit Court. There are now about 14 judges from the Federal Circuit Court doing entirely general federal law work. Basically there are slightly less resources for family law, but it is still pretty close to the mark. The Family Court is disposing of more cases than are coming in and the Federal Circuit Court is pretty close to the mark as well.

Senator WRIGHT: If I can take you to the $30 million cuts that have been announced over the forward estimates, and we understand that that is to streamline Family Court processes. The only information that I am aware of in relation to those that has been provided by the government is a breakdown over the forward estimates starting with $2 million this financial year, $6 million the following year, $9 million, and then $30 million in 2016-17. Has the court been given any further guidance, apart from the idea that it would be a good idea to streamline processes, or that that is what the purpose of the cuts is, from the government about how these savings are to be made?

Mr Foster: Not to my knowledge, Senator.

Senator WRIGHT: Could I ask for a bit more detailed about what work the Family Court has done, including work that it has commenced but not completed, in relation to identifying how these savings will be made?

Mr Foster: There is a pretty significant range of areas of both courts' operations where we have made significant savings over the last four years or so and returned to government. In some of those things we have made savings and reinvested it back into the courts. With the chair's permission it might be easier if I table this document which sets it out in detail. It is a significant document.

Senator WRIGHT: That might be very useful, thank you. Can I just clarify what you are saying there that that is actually identifying savings that have been made previously?

Mr Foster: Yes.

Senator WRIGHT: I am actually asking about the forward estimates of another $30 million on top of those savings and what work has been done, now, has been commenced or completed and where those savings will come from in the future?

Mr Foster: One of the significant options, as I said, is to try to reduce our cost of rental properties in rural and regional Australia and use the state facilities where we possibly can. A classic example of that is in Darwin where we have just signed off an MOU with the Northern Territory government for the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court to move into the Supreme Court building in Darwin and free up our leased premises in Darwin. That is a really significant step and will save several hundreds of thousands of dollars. We are not quite sure about the exact detail as yet. The Northern Territory government is turning our courtroom section in that building into a juvenile justice centre, so they are taking over the lease. So we have made good on one commercial building floor. We have moved into a joint operation in Rockhampton in Queensland, and we are looking now at the new state court complex in Coffs Harbour. We are looking at every area of operation in relation to rural and regional, and we will try and do it in a much more effective way.

We do now have really good technology to support that through the Commonwealth courts portal. The use of the Commonwealth courts portal with electronic filing is really quite significant now. We are looking at trying to change the way we deal with divorce and deal with that electronically only so we do not have to produce paper. There are a whole range of issues that we are looking at as well is generally just cut the cloth. There are things like operational expenses upon which we can impose a percentage cut. We have cut back our travelling enormously. We have now invested in internet protocol video conferencing. We have moved away from the ISDN lines. All of our video conferencing now is free of charge to us. A person can connect to our system for free and we can operate for free within the system so that people in the country, interstate and internationally can link into our video system at no cost to them and no cost to us. That was with a capital investment of around about $1.4 or $1.5 million. That has been operating now for about five or six months and the usage rate, off the top of my head, in October was something like 500 hours of video conferencing, which saved an awful lot of travel. We are looking at ways to manage interpreters in a much more effective way. Our interpreting costs are very, very high, but we are trying to manage that in a better way so that we do not have interpreters sitting around in courtrooms waiting to be called on. They can come in, do their job and get out. It is a mixture of back office, judicial and general administration where we are looking across the board to try to meet our commitments.

Senator WRIGHT: Are you confident, is the Family Court confident, that this cut of $30 million will not affect service delivery and access to justice issues? People will still be able to access the courts in a timely way?

Mr Foster: Before I answer that question in detail I would like to find out a bit more about what these cuts actually mean—whether it is just in the Family Court or whether it is across a much broader range of family law services. A $30 million cut to the budget of the agency would be very significant.

Senator WRIGHT: That leads me to the question that I have. If I heard you rightly, you said that you would like to understand more of where those cuts are to be applied, is that what you said? That is my question. Do the cuts apply exclusively to the Family Court or could they also be found within the Federal Circuit Court and other courts? You do not know that from what you are saying at this stage.

Mr Foster: No, I do not.

Senator WRIGHT: What is the relationship between the $30 million in required savings and the efficiency dividend which all federal courts face over the forward estimates? Is it your understanding that they are separate and cumulative requirements, or can any aspect of the streamlining be counted towards the courts' efficiency dividend?

Mr Foster: I understand they are separate.

Senator WRIGHT: So it is additional.

Mr Foster: Yes.

Senator WRIGHT: We have talked about the key performance indicators. You have indicated that the court would have liked to have met those more effectively, but you said that you are starting to have a backlog clearance. To what extent would these cuts affect your ability to meet those key performance indicators in the future?

Mr Foster: We would still have the same number of judges. Judges are appointed with tenure until age 70, so there is still the same judicial firepower to deal with the cases. In theory it should not. The only question is: would we be able to keep the work up to the judges and the administration. That is the only issue. That might mean that we would just have to reallocate resources around the system.

Senator WRIGHT: The judges', I understand, productivity and efficiency would be reliant upon how quickly they could get the information they needed and the files prepared and so on from the registry.

Mr Foster: That is one aspect of it, but there is a much broader issue about judges' efficiency and effectiveness which concerns the legal profession and legal aid and a whole range of other things as well.

Senator WRIGHT: Thank you.

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