Chief Judge John Pascoe AO CVO - 1 May 2013 Sydney

Again let me welcome everyone to this is truly historic occasion. The first time in the history of Australia that a Court has changed its name so as to better reflect the work carried out by the Court and the status of its judiciary.

On behalf of the Court I thank Chief Justice Allsop and the Judges of the Federal Court for extending to us the privilege of using this magnificent court room for the inaugural sitting of the Federal Circuit Court of Australia.

I would like to thank the Attorney-General, Mr Colbran and Mr Catanzariti for their very kind words. I would also like to acknowledge both the role of the Attorney-General in successfully concluding the arrangements for the Court’s change of name and the honour he does the Court in being here today.

Many people played a role in the journey the Court has made. First and foremost I would like to pay tribute to all of my colleagues for their hard work, dedication and skill. More than anything, it is this that has earned the Court the respect it now enjoys within the Judiciary, the legal profession and in the community at large. I particularly want to thank Judge Baumann for his outstanding contribution to case management in the Court. The Court would not be what it is without him.  

Chief Justice Bryant was the first head of the Court and together with the initial appointees to the Court played a key role setting its future directions.

The change of name would not have come about without the commitment to reform of the former Attorney-General, the Hon Nicola Roxon. After wide consultation Ms Roxon selected the name of the Court and introduced the necessary legislation which I am pleased to say, passed quickly with universal support. On behalf of the Court, I thank Ms Roxon. 

The Shadow Attorney-General, the Hon George Brandis, also recognised the need for the Court to be properly titled in light of its role in the Federal judiciary. I thank Senator Brandis for the unwavering support he has given the Court.

Former Attorney-General Phillip Ruddock also recognised the changing role of this Court and made significant efforts to bring about a change of name during the period he was Attorney-General. I am grateful for the support he gave the Court.

The Hon Michael Black, the former Chief Justice of the Federal Court of Australia is here today and I would like to thank him for his invaluable advice and his unswerving commitment to the ongoing role and proper recognition of this Court. That support has been continued by his successors as Chief Justice. I thank Justice Keane now of the High Court and look forward to working with Chief Justice Allsop in the future.

More generally I would like to thank the judges of the Federal and Family Courts for their support of this Court over the years.

I also want to acknowledge the officers of the Attorney-General’s Department who worked so hard to ensure that the necessary legislation was in place to bring about the Court’s change of name. The Attorney-General’s Office also played a major role in ensuring effective liaison between all parties involved. I am sure Michael Cook has a few more grey hairs as a result. 

Last but not least, I thank the Court’s Chief Executive Officer, Mr Richard Foster and his team for all of their hard work in ensuring that the change of name occurred smoothly.

From a distance, courts can appear remote and unchanging, bound by history and tradition and staffed by people who are somehow set apart. The reality is that courts change and evolve as society changes and evolves. We are part of a legal system that is in a continuing state of evolution. Our celebration today is about the capacity of the court system to grow and change whilst preserving the great traditions of the law.

The Federal Court system has been in a constant state of change since the establishment of the High Court shortly after Federation. The Family Court was established in 1975 and the Federal Court a year later in 1976. Both of these courts have also experienced considerable change since they were first established. This Court sat for the first time in 2000 as the Federal Magistrates Court of Australia.  

Over time courts also broadly reflect social values and changing norms. The composition of courts has also changed. It is noteworthy that on this Court approximately 30 per cent of our judges are women and the Court has also been fortunate in having the first Indigenous judge appointed to a federal court. It is my expectation that over time the judiciary of this Court will reflect the remarkable multiculturalism and diversity of modern Australia.        

If I can at this stage, be permitted a brief moment to reflect on what has been a momentous journey for this Court, so far, I need go no further than to recall the newspaper headline of 25 April 2008: ‘Federal Magistrates Court Doomed’. This was a very understandable headline in the circumstances of the time.    

Fortunately it did not prove prophetic. It is fair to say that the threat to the future of the Court only increased the resolve of the Judges of this Court to demonstrate the value of its work and its contribution to the administration of justice. In the end this proved successful.

Despite the uncertainty, almost since inception, over the future of the Court, the Court has continually grown, both in terms of judicial numbers and jurisdiction. It will shortly be a Court of 65 judges, handling approximately 85 per cent of all family law matters throughout Australia and a large proportion of the filings in general federal law. The Court works cooperatively with the Federal Court and the Family Court to ensure that all matters are dealt with in the court which is most appropriate.

There is no doubt that the process of evolution in this Court and more generally, will continue. The Chief Justice of the High Court, the Hon Robert French in a foreword to a recent book noted that the redesignation of the Court:

[I]s likely to prove to be more than cosmetic. It may be a precursor to a widening and deepening of the jurisdiction of the Court and its evolution towards a national federal trial court with economic efficiency benefits to litigants and government. 

The name Federal Circuit Court emphasises the Court’s commitment to rural and regional Australia but it means more than that. The Court is working hard to develop special circuits to accommodate litigants who have particular needs, including indigenous Australians, Australians from different cultural backgrounds and those suffering from disability.

There is clear evidence that many indigenous people who wished to access the family law system were previously confused about the role of this Court because of its name. There is now an opportunity for the Court to ensure that it is more accessible to indigenous Australians and that it conducts proceedings in a way that is culturally appropriate and allows them to feel respected. In this way the Court can ensure that extended families of indigenous children can play a meaningful role in their lives and hopefully reduce the number of indigenous children in care.

Human rights and anti-discrimination are very important parts of the work of this Court. It is important that the Court is not just responsive to the applications before it but also proactive in preserving the ideals of human freedom, dignity and respect for diversity both nationally and internationally. I acknowledge the presence today of a number of guests with whom I have worked internationally in the field of human rights and I thank them for the honour of their presence today.

In concluding I would like to quote from a former Chief Justice of the High Court, Sir Gerard Brennan:

The modern judge possesses not only knowledge of the law but also skill in the interpretation of statutes and of the judgments of superior courts, awareness of the existence and limits of the leeway in judicial decision making, appreciation of community standards and, on occasion, appreciation of enduring community values and the susceptibility of legal rules to their influence. 

The members of this Court are indeed fortunate to be part of an Australian judiciary which Sir Gerard aptly describes and to be part of a judicial system which is made up of many different courts all of which play a unique role in upholding the finest ideals of justice and the rule of law.

As the courts continue to evolve I am certain that the Federal Circuit Court of Australia will play its part in ensuring access to justice for all Australians, regardless of their geographic location, economic circumstances, ethnic or cultural background. In this way we will continue to justify our place alongside other State & Federal courts with longer histories & add our unique contribution to their proud record of service to the ideals of justice in a free and fair society.

The Court will now adjourn.

Chief Justice Robert French AC, ‘Introduction’ in the Australian Institute of Judicial Administration Inc (ed.), Australian Courts: serving democracy and its public (Australian Institute of Judicial Administration, 2013) 1, 2.
Sir Gerard Brennan AC KBE, ‘Why Be a Judge?’ (Speech delivered at the Judge’s Conference, Dunedin, 12 April 1996).