The Justice Statement builds on achievements in making the court and tribunal system more responsive to community needs. The Government will:
Traditionally, our courts and tribunals concentrated on their primary function of resolving disputes without necessarily focusing on their role in making the justice system more accessible to the community. More recently, there has been a significant change in emphasis. Over the last decade in particular, our courts and tribunals increasingly have sought to improve the way in which they deal with the community they serve.
Much has been achieved already. Our courts and tribunals have demonstrated their willingness to develop practices and procedures that remove barriers and improve access to the courts. These include, for example, case management systems for speedier and cheaper resolution of disputes, simplified court forms and more user friendly proceedings. In addition, the availability of interpreters has been expanded, and facilities have been made more relevant and appropriate for all court users. These initiatives have been supplemented by community organisations providing support and assistance to people coming into contact with the courts. Court support schemes, which operate in a number of States, assist people who may be unfamiliar with the court environment and proceedings.
Whilst these moves are very welcome, the Access to Justice Report made it clear that more needed to be done. Initiatives detailed in this Justice Statement are designed to build on existing work and take the process of reform into new directions.
Court practices and facilities need to be assessed against criteria of consumer accessibility. The emphasis should be on re-orienting the courts to a greater consumer focus. The development of charters (or documents, by whatever name used by the court or tribunal, that outline aims for the delivery of services) is one very useful way to achieve this goal.
The Access to Justice Report recommended that each Commonwealth court and tribunal should develop its own charter. The report envisaged that these charters would involve each court or tribunal evaluating its operations systematically, with a view to setting standards for all aspects of its dealings with the public.
In particular, the charters would focus on services provided to the community. They would publicly state objectives and plans in areas such as:
The Government welcomes the support for charters shown by a number of Commonwealth courts and tribunals and will provide $700,000 over the next two years to assist the Federal Court, the Family Court and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to develop charters of access and service. The Industrial Relations Court also will develop a charter.These courts and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal have undertaken to develop their charters in consultation with government, bodies such as the Law Council of Australia, representatives of groups regularly using the courts, and the general community. When developed, these charters may serve as a model for other courts and tribunals.
Tribunals have the flexibility to use a variety of settlement techniques. The Administrative Appeals Tribunal uses differential case management, which recognises that more complex cases require different management techniques and levels of management.
The Administrative Appeals Tribunal will run a pilot program over the next two years to further develop its differential case management approach.The pilot will identify further improvements that can be made, especially in the Tribunal's larger registries. The Tribunal will continue its commitment to continuous review and assessment of the significant procedural reforms it already has undertaken in the interests of efficiency and effectiveness.
A similar scheme already exists in the Federal Court. The Family Court has a well-developed system of case management techniques that was introduced in 1985. The Court proposes an ongoing process of review and fine tuning of its existing systems.
The Industrial Relations Court will employ specialist case handling officers in Sydney and Melbourne where its workload is greatest. These officers will assist in mediating disputes and in dealing with special problems affecting unrepresented litigants. They will be available to provide information about sources of legal advice and other referral services available to unrepresented litigants.
The further development of sophisticated case management techniques will lead to an increase in early settlement, better management of cases and reduced costs of litigation.
To enhance the reforms it already has undertaken, the Federal Court has decided that it will review its rules of practice and procedure. The objective will be to keep to a minimum the steps that need to be taken to ensure a client's case is presented fairly to the Court. This will reduce costs to clients. It also will make it easier for people who do not have legal representation to take matters through the court themselves.
The Family Court is already introducing simplified procedures. These will allow the Court to maximise the number of cases resolved through early intervention. Simplified procedures will allow represented and unrepresented applicants to file the minimum of information required to reach early resolution. Under existing procedures, applicants must file extensive information as if the matter required a trial, although less than 5% of matters actually go to trial.
As a new court, the Industrial Relations Court has had the opportunity to take a fresh approach and set benchmarks in this area. For example, it has adopted new rules for its unlawful terminations jurisdiction, representing the overwhelming bulk of its case load. It has introduced plain English forms, and informal processes for the service of documents by the court registry rather than the parties themselves. It also has adopted a case management philosophy that requires the court to inform the parties about what is happening at important stages of the litigation.
The Industrial Relations Court also has embarked on a total revision of its court rules in order to introduce plain English principles. The objective is to adopt rules that are understood easily by the profession and by court users.
The Government believes that simplification of procedures will result in significant improvements in court practices and procedures and will act as a model for reforms in other courts. The Government will provide resources in 1995-1997 to the Federal Court and in 1995-1996 to the Family Court to fund these important reforms.
In the Family Court, straightforward divorces generally are dealt with within ten weeks. Matters that require a hearing usually are heard within six to twelve months. Longer or more complex matters sometimes take over a year to be considered. Delays are much shorter for other Family Court services, such as conciliation counselling and Registrar's Conferences.
The Industrial Relations Court has been devoting resources to hearing unlawful termination claims as quickly as possible. Generally, cases are listed between four and eight weeks from the date of readiness for hearing.
In some areas, however, demand has been greater than the courts have been able to meet without some delays occurring. Increased community recognition of the importance of counselling in family law matters has resulted in growing waiting lists for Family Court counselling. The introduction of Family Court procedures which require more involvement of registrars and counsellors, in the interests of assisting parties and maximising early settlement of matters, also has added to delays. The Industrial Relations Court, as a new jurisdiction, must respond to peaks and troughs in litigation at a stage when a new regulatory regime is being implemented and staffing requirements are being assessed.
The Government is prepared to respond with the provision of extra resources to the courts to overcome backlogs and cover demand peaks.
The Government will provide a one-off temporary increase in Family Court Counsellors and Registrars for an intensive effort to clear its outstanding caseload. Counselling resources will be increased significantly to ensure waiting times are kept to a minimum.A special task force of temporary judicial registrars was appointed to the Industrial Relations Court in October 1994 to assist in dealing with its caseload.
Appointment of additional judicial resources in the Federal Court also is being considered.
The Commonwealth, in conjunction with representatives from State administrations and Commonwealth courts, is currently developing benchmarks that would be used to help courts measure efficiency and effectiveness. The Council of Australian Governments agreed to this exercise in July 1993.
Work has concentrated in the first instance on the national civil and criminal jurisdictions. Other `specialist' areas will then be examined.
In recent times, the performance of our judges has been the subject of unparalleled public scrutiny. People are interested in judicial decisions and in the process of legal reasoning. There is also significant public interest in the appointment of new judges. People need to feel confident that the process by which judges are selected is designed to find the best people for that important role.
The Government seeks to broaden the range of people who are considered for judicial appointment. While barristers are well-placed to develop skills in advocacy, legal analysis and court procedure, these skills can also be found amongst solicitors, academic lawyers and government lawyers. A wider field of candidates will assist in ensuring that as many talented lawyers as possible are considered by government for judicial appointment.
Judicial appointments must always be made on merit. While the selection of judges is and must remain a function of the Executive, the Attorney-General will consult with legal professional bodies and community groups as appropriate in selecting people to recommend for judicial appointment.
The Government will also welcome and consider nominations by or on behalf of people who wish to be considered for appointment. Strategies to encourage suitable candidates to come forward from across the community and to ensure that nominations are regularly updated will also be developed. This process will allow the Attorney-General to consider the widest possible range of potential appointees when a vacancy arises. The Attorney-General will keep confidential the names of persons interested in appointment.
Judicial appointments will continue to be subject to approval by Cabinet and the Governor-General-in-Council.
In selecting people for judicial appointment, the Government will seek to: * ensure that appointees continue to be of the highest possible calibre, and * identify a broader field of candidates for judicial office.
Accordingly, it is important that judges, tribunal members and staff have access to initial and continuing information on a range of social matters so that they can keep themselves up-to-date. Judges and tribunal members are independent and any professional development they undertake naturally is voluntary.
The Australian Law Reform Commission report, Equality Before the Law, recommended that judges, magistrates and court officers who deal with family law and violence matters should be aware of the dynamics of violence against women in the home. The Government supports these recommendations, noting that this is also a matter for action by State and Territory governments in their own courts.
The need for court and tribunal awareness on cross-cultural issues also was highlighted by the Access to Justice Report. Differences in culturally appropriate behaviour can lead to misunderstanding by courts of parties appearing before them. For example, culturally appropriate deference to authority figures can lead witnesses from some cultures to simply agree with propositions put to them by lawyers or judges regardless of their accuracy. Further problems arise from language barriers. The 1991 Attorney-General's Department report, Access to Interpreters in the Australian Legal System, recorded evidence of judicial failure to recognise when witnesses of non-English-speaking backgrounds required an interpreter.
Already much is happening in this area. The Australian Institute of Judicial Administration has been at the forefront of the move towards providing relevant professional development programs. The Government provided funding in the last two years for the Institute to develop pilot programs on gender awareness. We also have assisted the Institute with funding to develop proposals for induction courses for new appointees to the Australian judiciary. The Institute already undertakes projects on a range of related topics, including Aboriginal cultural awareness.
The Government provided some funding in 1993-94 to the Family Court for the development of a gender awareness program for judges and other decision-makers in the Family Court. That funding was provided in response to specific recommendations of the National Committee for Violence Against Women.
The Federal Court has taken a number of initiatives to promote awareness of gender issues. These include forming a gender issues committee at a senior level, enabling its judges to participate in gender issues seminars, and instigating a meeting program between judges and female barristers appearing before the Court. The Court has also formed an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural awareness committee, which is offering programs in cultural awareness for the Court's staff in each of its eight registries. It is also developing voluntary programs for judges of the Court.
The National Native Title Tribunal currently undertakes Aboriginal cross-cultural awareness-raising programs, in which Federal Court judges also participate.
The Administrative Appeals Tribunal also currently conducts some professional development training for tribunal members, which includes topics such as gender and cross-cultural issues.
The Government strongly supports the expansion and further development of these programs.
The Government will make available a total of $2.7m over four years to allow for professional development programs for Family Court judges, Administrative Appeals Tribunal members, and court and tribunal staff. These programs, which will be largely developed by the courts and tribunals themselves, will focus on gender, ethnicity, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues, as well as on the use of interpreters.These programs will be conducted in consultation with the Australian Institute of Judicial Administration.
The Attorney-General's Department also is investigating a range of options to provide ongoing support for professional development for judges. These options include, but are not limited to, the possibility of establishing a specialist national centre for this purpose. The principles of judicial independence would be fully respected in the establishment and operation of any such centre.
Innovative use of technology also can make court facilities available to many areas without the need for expensive infrastructure. Rather than requiring people to travel great distances to access the courts, innovations such as video conferencing and greater use of telephone conferencing are bringing the courts to their users.
The Justice Statement builds on initiatives already undertaken to offer greater community access to court services and facilities.
The Government will fund the Family Court to extend its circuit services to more areas and to make more frequent visits to areas already serviced.The Industrial Relations Court also is exploring the establishment of permanent circuits for judicial registrars. Judicial registrars handle a considerable amount of court work, particularly unfair dismissal matters.
The Joint Select Committee Report made recommendations for an increase in the Family Court's capacity to offer counselling services in areas of high unmet demand and high population growth. Such services would complement the proposals for the expansion of services from existing registries and increases in circuit visits.
As detailed elsewhere in this Statement, new Family Court Counselling registries will be established in a number of regional areas to provide counselling, circuit court services and judicial and registrar services.
The Industrial Relations Court is providing country sittings where needed. It also is in the process of developing a remote area telephone system that will enable the Court to provide quality advice about Court procedures prior to litigation commencing. The telephone service will also enable the Court to gather important information about the demand on its services and the effectiveness of those services.
The rights of privacy for the individuals involved in the court proceedings, the possible impact on the conduct of a trial, and related issues must be balanced against the right of the public to know. Indeed, these concerns are already reflected in specific statutory restrictions on the publication of certain proceedings. These include those involving juveniles, some family law matters, sexual assault and matters involving persons with HIV/AIDS.
The Access to Justice Report suggested that there should be an experimental program in the Federal Court to allow the broadcasting of proceedings. The Federal Court agrees that it would be valuable to pursue this further and, resources permitting, will conduct a study into the issues involved in broadcasting of court proceedings.
In an effort to reduce costs and increase efficiency, the Commonwealth required the court reporting service, Auscript, to perform these functions on a fee for service basis. Auscript competes on a commercial basis with private enterprise providers of this form of service. Auscript negotiates contracts at market rates with all its major federal clients, and has been able to offer the courts and tribunals savings of 12.5%.
Generally, the cost of a transcript is borne by the party requesting it. While the Government believes that the system is now more efficient, it recognises that the cost of transcripts still may have a significant impact on some litigants and on bodies providing legal aid.
Auscript currently provides assistance to parties in accessing transcripts if their proceedings already have been transcribed by another party or on the order of the court. Auscript also provides reading rooms for litigants to listen to sound recordings of the court proceedings and to read the transcript. These facilities assist litigants to assess whether or not to proceed to an appeal. Auscript does not charge for this service.
Consideration is being given to technological options that could assist in increasing the availability of transcripts to individual litigants and reducing the costs of those transcripts. New digital audio facilities now being commissioned will enable electronic searching for those parts of the transcript that are required.
The Government intends to review the way in which transcript services are currently provided. Terms of reference for the review are being developed. While the primary focus of the review is likely to be on the commercial operation and future ownership of Auscript, consideration of the best arrangements for providing court and transcription services needs to include attention to the impact of these arrangements on users of the courts and on the community more generally.
The Government will undertake a review of the provision of court recording and transcription services.
This Statement focuses on reforms that are designed to make access to justice a reality for all.
The Government is committed to social justice through equality of opportunity in all major areas of life. Equality of access to the justice system is a major part of that commitment. The courts and tribunals share that commitment. As an example, the Administrative Appeals Tribunal's Mission Statement commits the organisation to provide equality of access to all people and agencies. The Tribunal has expanded this commitment by citing examples of how it may achieve this, such as providing interpreting and other facilities, making its documentation accessible, and adopting practices to overcome geographical isolation.
The Australian Law Reform Commission, in its report entitled Equality before the Law: Women's Access to the Legal System, stated that:
In addition, Auscript has portable hearing loop facilities available in each city. These are deployed to the appropriate court as needs arise.
Sound amplification is provided in the larger court rooms to ensure that the proceedings are audible at a reasonable level throughout the court. Newer courtrooms have been subject to careful acoustic design to ensure good audibility. The Brisbane Law Courts Building is a commendable example. No sound amplification facilities have been necessary in that building.
In 1995-96, the Attorney-General's Department, in consultation with the Commonwealth courts and tribunals, will undertake a survey of the level of accessibility of court and tribunal facilities. That survey will focus on the particular needs of women, people with a disability, the frail aged and people caring for children.The States and Territories also need to consider the accessibility of court and tribunal buildings under their control. The Government will share any survey data that may be of use to the States and Territories in that consideration.
At present, the Court has a counselling service in Darwin. Locations such as Alice Springs, Katherine and Tennant Creek are visited on circuit. The Court proposes to extend these services.
As noted elsewhere in this Statement, the Government will provide funding to enable the Family Court to:
Consultation with the Aboriginal community in Darwin has indicated a need to redesign a courtroom to make it more suitable for use by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Although plans have not yet been settled, this might include rearranging the layout of the court such as reducing the height of the bench, and placing the bench, bar table and witness box in a relationship that will reduce direct eye contact and more closely approximate tribal council settings. This courtroom will be used by both the Family Court and by the Federal Court as well as the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. The Aboriginal Land Commissioner, the National Native Title Tribunal and other Commonwealth tribunals are also expected to make use of these facilities.
The Government will fund the Federal Court for the redesign and refurbishment of a Darwin courtroom.
The Family Court is a large user of interpreter services and is funded to provide interpreters where needed. The Court is continuing to develop a user-friendly approach for clients from non-English-speaking backgrounds and with hearing difficulties. For example, the Court has introduced interpreter-assisted Divorce Lists in its Sydney Registry, with Mandarin and Cantonese interpreters in attendance. These have worked well for both Court and clients. For people with a hearing disability, sign language interpreters are provided.
The Government's commitment to ensuring access to interpreters in Commonwealth courts and tribunals is demonstrated by its existing funding to enable courts and tribunals to provide interpreters and by additional measures detailed in this Statement.
Of course, the plain fact of the matter is that the major responsibility in this area rests with the States and Territories. Reports such as that of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody have pointed out that the need for interpreters is particularly acute in criminal matters. This area is largely the responsibility of the States and Territories. The Commonwealth is working with the States and Territories through the Ministerial Council for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs in an effort to achieve some progress in this area. The Government urges the States and Territories to do more to respond to the need again highlighted by the Access to Justice Report.
As discussed above, in 1995-96 professional development programs will be developed by a number of Commonwealth courts and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to assist judges, tribunal members and court staff in working with interpreters. In addition, increased community education will provide more information to clients on the availability of interpreter services and the rights of clients of the courts to access them.
The Access to Justice Report and the Australian Law Reform Commission report on Multiculturalism and the Law recommended that qualified interpreters be available in courts for parties and witnesses of non-English-speaking backgrounds.
The Government provides funds for interpreters in most federal courts, the Family Court of Western Australia and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. However, the time has come for an evaluation to assess the effectiveness of current programs, to determine where there are unmet needs, and to develop strategies to meet those needs.
The Government will conduct detailed research on the disadvantages faced by people of non-English speaking background in the justice system. This will focus on determining levels of unmet demand and on developing strategies to increase awareness of, and access to, interpreting services by people of a non-English speaking backgrounds.A shortage of adequately qualified interpreters in the legal system has been the subject of criticism by the ethnic community. The Access to Justice Advisory Committee and the Australian Law Reform Commission recommended that qualified interpreters be available in courts for both parties and witnesses of non-English-speaking backgrounds.
The Government will establish a national pilot program of specialist training courses for ethnic language interpreters in the legal system.
The Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody recommended that Governments increase the availability of Aboriginal language interpreters. The Royal Commission emphasised that there was a serious chance of injustice where interpreters were not available and Aboriginal people were unfamiliar with court proceedings.
The Attorney-General's Department has developed a series of pilot projects for the training of court interpreters in Aboriginal languages. The project has already produced seven accredited Pitjantjatjarra interpreters. From two pilot projects being conducted in Queensland and the Kimberley area, eight students gained accreditation at the end of 1994 in Torres Strait Creole and Aboriginal Kriol. Further programs are being developed in Perth and Darwin in close co-operation with local communities.
This work has proved successful but must be continued and expanded. The particular plight of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in relation to the criminal justice system makes the need for an expansion of this effort all the more critical.
The Government will commit some $1.4 million over four years for training programs for interpreters in Aboriginal languages. A registration system for trained interpreters will be established. In addition, course materials will be refined and community education programs will be developed to enable interpreter training to be spread progressively through Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.Access to a system of high quality independent courts and administrative tribunals is an essential component of access to justice. Initiatives in this Statement will assist courts and tribunals to become more oriented to the needs of the people who use them. Greater efficiency and simplified procedures will make our courts and tribunals more effective and more accessible for citizens to resolve their disputes.
 See `Families'
 Equality Before the Law
 Gender Bias and the Judiciary
 See `Resolving Disputes'
 See `Resolving Disputes'
 See `Resolving Disputes'
 See `Resolving Disputes'
 See `Families'