House debates

Wednesday, 14 March 2012


Courts Legislation Amendment (Judicial Complaints) Bill 2012; Second Reading

9:10 am

Photo of Nicola RoxonNicola Roxon (Gellibrand, Australian Labor Party, Attorney-General) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.


This bill, in conjunction with the Judicial Misbehaviour and Incapacity (Parliamentary Commissions) Bill 2012 just introduced, will strengthen and improve the transparency of managing complaints about the conduct of federal judicial officers.

This Labor government is committed to delivering an accessible, equitable and understandable justice system—one which serves individual complainants as well as large corporate players.

These bills, in combination, will take us an important step closer to these goals.

Developed in consultation with the Federal Court and Family Court chief justices, and the Chief Federal Magistrate, they will support the heads of jurisdiction in their role administering and maintaining public confidence in their courts.

Complaints handling within the courts

This bill's companion bill, the Judicial Misbehaviour and Incapacity (Parliamentary Commissions) Bill 2012, will provide the parliament a clear framework for dealing with very serious complaints about judges.

However, parliamentary consideration of whether a judge should be removed from office forms only one part of a system to handle complaints against federal judicial officers.

Given that the parliament would only consider very serious complaints that might lead to removal of a judge, it would be expected that parliamentary consideration would only occur comparatively rarely.

Another important component of judicial accountability is through complaints processes that operate within the federal courts.

The Chief Justice and the Chief Federal Magistrate rightly take a central role in any response to concerns about judicial conduct raised by parties or members of the public. This means that almost all complaints about judges or federal magistrates would be appropriately addressed through the courts internal complaints processes.

The chief justices and the Chief Federal Magistrate play a significant part in the management of complaints about other judicial officers that have been brought to their attention.

An effective system for handling complaints against federal judicial officers recognises that concerns about judicial behaviour may vary.

The flexible approach being implemented with these reforms means responses to complaints can be tailored to the relevant circumstances.

Accordingly, complaints handling within the courts will remain largely non-statutory in nature, but supported in a number of key elements by this bill.

This bill will not apply to the High Court.

That is because the High Court's position at the apex of the Australian judicial system means that it could be called upon to determine the validity of any structure established to handle judicial complaints.

Reforms to federal complaints handling within courts

The Courts Legislation Amendment (Judicial Complaints) Bill supports the way chief justices of the Federal Court and the Family Court and the Chief Federal Magistrate manage complaints about judicial officers that have been made directly to the court.

A key component of the reform is to provide heads of jurisdiction with an option to establish a conduct committee to investigate the basis of a complaint and report on what action should be taken about the complaint.

A conduct committee would be composed of three members and include two judicial nominees and one non-judicial nominee.

These reforms are designed to be largely non-statutory and to provide effective and flexible avenues for heads of jurisdiction to consider and handle complaints.

The reforms will provide a transparent and accountable approach to the way complaints about judges are managed and gives clarity and certainty for both judicial officers and the public.

Key features of the bill

The bill gives a statutory basis for the courts heads of jurisdiction to manage complaints about judicial officers and provides immunity from suit for participants in the complaints-handling process.

It also excludes documents created through the complaints-handling scheme from the operation of the Freedom of Information Act 1982.

This exclusion is appropriate to protect sensitive or personal information that may be created in the course of complaints-handling processes. The bill also enhances the ability of heads of jurisdiction to take timely action in relation to judicial officers, such as temporary restriction to non-sitting duties, in order to maintain public confidence in the specific court and wider judiciary.

An effective complaints-handling system serves the needs of the public, improves public confidence in the judiciary, and allows better courts administration.

This government is confident that there will be significant longer term benefits arising from these bills for our justice system.

Introduction of this bill and the Judicial Misbehaviour and Incapacity (Parliamentary Commissions) Bill represent a significant amount of work over many years, and I would like to thank all of those involved.

The government will continue to work closely with the courts in implementing these important reforms.

Together, these bills create an integrated, clear and effective system to handle complaints about federal judicial officers that promotes accountability and transparency of processes.

The reforms outlined in both bills can only serve to strengthen the judiciary and enhance the public's confidence in the administration of justice in this country.

I commend this bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.