Hon Mark Dreyfus QC MP - 1 May 2013 Sydney

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, pay my respects to their elders, past and present, and extend that respect to all other Indigenous people here today.

I also formally acknowledge the Chief Judge and Judges of the Federal Circuit Court of Australia. This is a significant event in the Court’s history, and I appreciate the opportunity to share this occasion with you.

One year ago my predecessor, Nicola Roxon, spoke to the Federal Magistrates Court Plenary to outline her aims for the Court.

I am pleased to be here today to say that the aims she outlined have been met: the Court retains its separate and distinct identity from the Family Court. Court administrative structures have been formalised and streamlined, as endorsed by Stephen Skehill’s report.

The Court has been put on a stronger financial footing following changes to court fee levels across the federal system. The Heads of Jurisdiction Consultative Committee is operational and providing strong advice to Government, as well as sharing ideas between courts.

Foremost among the former Attorney’s aims, of course, was to change the title of the Court, and that of its judicial officers, to more accurately reflect its role and status in the federal judicial system.

So today, I formally offer my congratulations to the Court and its Judges on the commencement of its new name, the Federal Circuit Court of Australia and the new titles of ‘Chief Judge’ and ‘Judge’.

It was a particularly pleasing moment when I was able to first use these titles when appearing at the ceremonial swearing in of Judge Small last week.

When the Federal Magistrates Court commenced operation in 2000, its mandate was to deliver a low-cost, flexible and accessible forum to resolve less complex matters, as an alternative to litigation in the Federal and Family Courts.

The Court has proved singularly successful in this task. From its first days, the Court actively pursued ways to provide court services to communities that experienced difficulties in accessing justice services – whether that be due to socio-economic circumstances, remoteness, or lack of other community facilities.

Today, the Court remains committed to improving access to court services for people living outside the larger metropolitan areas. And it continues to meet a clear need in the community for people to be able to access a court service near to where they live and work – in places like Broken Hill and Bundaberg, Ballarat and Burnie – not just in the capital cities.

The Court is now entering a new chapter in its history – a time where we will see the Court fulfil its potential as a truly federal court, recognised for its circuit and trial work and confident in its identity, jurisdiction and role.

While I rarely like to quote The Australian, I will do so now to correct an inaccuracy. On the morning of 12 April, that journal stated “through the magic of legislation, the court’s 61 judicial officers went to bed last night as magistrates and awoke this morning as judges”.

We all know, of course, that this is an achievement that has not magically occurred overnight. Rather, it has been the focus of considerable time, effort and planning, to ensure that all aspects of the Court’s business enjoyed a smooth transition. I thank Court officers and officials for working so closely and cooperatively with officers from my Department through the necessary changes to legislation, regulations and administration over the past year.

Your new title of ‘Judge’ simply recognises that you have always been members of the judiciary of a court created by Parliament under Chapter III of the Constitution. As such, the character and expectations associated with your role remain the same.

Judicial office, regardless of the title attached, is a position of significant public trust and responsibility. I can not overstate how critical public confidence in judges and the administration of justice is to the democratic system of government we enjoy.

As Justice Michael Kirby said in one of his multitude of speeches, “To be a member of a court that is uncorrupted, fiercely independent, learned, industrious and widely respected, is a great vocation. It involves years of devoted study; long hours of relentless concentration; great patience; an inbuilt sense of courtesy; devotion to the law and to finding just outcomes wherever possible.”

In accepting the task Michael Kirby so eloquently described, the Judges of the Federal Circuit Court form an integral part of the justice system in Australia. The commencement of a new name brings the opportunity for a rejuvenated sense of identity and a confident examination of the Court’s direction. With this in mind, I would like to share my thoughts about how the Court can meet its present and future challenges.

Ensuring a professional, independent and high-regarded judiciary is inextricably linked with the Court’s role as a truly modern, responsive federal court.

The Government has actively undertaken steps since the last plenary to support the Court’s judicial officers to maintain a high calibre of professionalism.

To that end, you will be aware that the National Judicial College of Australia has reversed its policy to exclude judges of this court from its National Judicial Orientation Program. I understand that new members to this Court are already participating in the program which will, no doubt, assist to enable them to reach their full potential.

As you are aware, salaries and allowances for judicial officers across all federal courts are determined by the independent Remuneration Tribunal, and are subject to annual review.

I have communicated my support for a specific review of Federal Circuit Court judges’ remuneration and entitlements to the Remuneration Tribunal President, outside this standard process. I will reiterate that view when I meet with the Tribunal next week.

Such a review would be beneficial, now that the Government has resolved the uncertainty about the Court’s ongoing role and functions.

While it is not the Government’s intent that the usual range of factors considered by the Tribunal in making its determinations would be expanded, it is generally accepted that the complexity and breadth of cases that come before the Court have increased over the past decade.

I support the Chief Judge’s position that it is appropriate to reassess work value where the nature of the work has significantly changed over time. As with a new name to better reflect the modern role of the Court, I support a review of the remuneration of its judges to better reflect the modern workload undertaken by the Court.

This is also an appropriate moment to note the recent publication Judicial Workload: Time Tasks and Work Organisation. This publication reports on surveys undertaken with a significant number of judicial officers across Australia and provides some valuable insights into the highs and lows judicial work. The report found that while a judicial role is rewarding and intellectually satisfying, it is also often stressful and emotionally draining. I suspect that this is particularly the case for many of you who regularly hear cases in the Court’s family law jurisdiction.

I want to acknowledge the burden of responsibility that falls to judicial officers. The dedication you demonstrate on a daily basis, in often difficult and demanding circumstances, shows your commitment to your oath of office and the principle that justice should be accessible to all.

Despite additional funding flowing from the increases to some court fees, the cost of maintaining the court system remains high – the Commonwealth recovers well under 30 per cent of the cost of running the courts, a recovery rate which is comparable or less than every other Australian jurisdiction. Commonwealth funding necessarily covers all of the facilities essential to the operation of the courts, including administration, accommodation, utilities, corporate services and travel.

The challenges that arise in finding better ways to operate are not unique to the Federal Circuit Court, nor to the judicial branch generally, but the Federal Circuit Court is engaging fully with these challenges.

The shared administrative arrangements between the Federal Circuit Court and the Family Court, recently formalised in legislation, are an important demonstration about how independent bodies can work together to maintain services to the public, without undue internal stresses.

On 1 July 2013 changes will commence to recognise a single CEO position and agency under the Financial Management and Accountability Act. These changes will reflect the successful practice of the two courts since 2009, while providing greater certainty and reducing administrative duplication.

Other areas where closer collaboration across courts might provide benefits to court users in the long term include complementary approaches towards effective case management processes, developing a more cooperative approach to meeting future accommodation needs, or even harmonising the development of courts’ Information and Communication Technology capabilities.

I also consider there are opportunities to collaborate with the other federal courts to increase the use of technology, such as by increasing the acceptance and use of electronic files. Over coming years this will become crucial in ensuring Court accessibility. Harnessing technology to improve administration, case management and communication with the public are issues familiar to the Federal Circuit Court and ones I know are currently being considered.

As Judges of the Federal Circuit Court you have always taken the lead in improving access for the benefit of court users. I encourage you to continue in that leading role, to contribute positively to the administration of justice generally and, in the particular, assist this Court to provide the best service possible.

Continuing to operate successfully with limited resources is a challenge being faced not only by the courts, but by all arms of government. This is particularly so at a time where public expectations of what government can and should provide have significantly increased.

However, the public also has a legitimate expectation that resources from the public purse directed towards maintaining the courts are administered effectively and efficiently.

Over recent years, the Federal Circuit Court has undertaken significant reforms to reduce costs and examine options for transforming its operations. I encourage this approach to continue in the Court’s future planning.

The unique character and broad reach of the Federal Circuit Court of Australia plays a vital role in the federal justice system. It is integral to assisting people in regional communities to access federal court services.

At its heart, a court is only as good as the judges who serve upon it. This Court’s legal strength is matched by the diversity of backgrounds of its Judges. By better reflecting the community it serves, as well as delivering fast, accessible justice, the Federal Circuit Court bench commands community respect. It is a respect that warranted, at the least, a new name and title.

I am confident that the Federal Circuit Court of Australia, and its Judges, are well able to respond to any challenges that face the Court over the next decade.

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