Wednesday, 17 February 2021
Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia Bill 2019, Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (Consequential Amendments and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2019; In Committee
I table supplementary explanatory memoranda relating to the government amendments to be moved to these bills. I seek leave to move together government amendments (1) to (3) on sheet UN126.
Can I just clarify. The opposition would agree to the government moving amendments (1) and (2) on sheet RC137 together, but we would not grant leave to deal with sheets UN126 and RC137 together. We just need to clarify what Senator Stoker was seeking to do.
Thank you for clarifying that you're prepared to grant leave for amendments (1) and (2) on sheet RC137 to be dealt with together. We also seek leave for amendments (1) to (3) on sheet UN126 to be dealt with together.
The TEMPORARY CHAIR: Leave is not granted for both together. We'll deal with the first request in terms of sheet RC137 and then, after that is dealt with, we'll deal with your other request.
That's fine. No problem. Thank you. I seek leave to move together government amendments (1) and (2) on sheet RC137.
That the House of Representatives be requested to make the following amendment:
(1) Clause 2, page 2 (table item 4), omit "2 years", substitute "18 months".
(2) Schedule 1, item 163, page 34 (line 24), omit "2 years", substitute "18 months".
The TEMPORARY CHAIR: The question is that government amendments (1) and (2) on sheet RC137 be agreed to.
I'll just make a short contribution. This is a very, very modest change to a truly terrible bill. But, if, against the advice of all the experts, this bill is to pass the Senate, it's better that it passes with these amendments than without them. On that basis, Labor will be voting in favour of these amendments.
Question agreed to.
(1) Clause 9, page 18 (lines 25 to 27), omit subclause (3), substitute:
(3) At least 25 Judges are to hold office in accordance with this Act.
(4) In working out whether at least 25 Judges hold office:
(a) include the Chief Justice and Deputy Chief Justice; and
(b) do not include a Judge who is also a judge of the Family Court of Western Australia.
(2) Clause 76, page 73 (line 32), omit "2 years", substitute "18 months".
(3) Clause 217, page 175 (line 20), omit "2 years", substitute "18 months".
That the House of Representatives be requested to make the following amendment:
(1) Amendment (1), subclause (3), omit “25 Judges”, substitute “32 Judges”.
[increased minimum number of Judges]
(2) Amendment (1), subclause (4), omit “25 Judges”, substitute “32 Judges”.
[increased minimum number of Judges]
Incorporation:20210217:Opposition's statment of reasons on FCFC bills
Amendment (1) on the government's sheet of amendments, if enacted, would ensure that there would have to be at least 25 judges in Division 1 of the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia. These amendments would marginally improve a terrible piece of legislation.
Let's not forget that, when the Attorney-General first put forward a bill to merge the Federal Circuit Court and Family Court of Australia in the 45th Parliament, he explicitly stated that he intended not to appoint new judges to Division 1 as they retired. That would have amounted to a gradual abolition of Division 1 over time. Let's remember that Division 1 is what the existing Family Court will become if the government's legislation passes the Senate. The Attorney-General was forced to back away from that position in the 46th Parliament.
Under its current iteration, the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia Bill 2019 would allow the Attorney-General to make a regulation to prescribe a minimum number of judges for Division 1, but nothing in the bill would require the Attorney-General to make any such regulation. The fact that the Attorney-General has stated publicly that he would prescribe a minimum of 25 judges is meaningless. The Morrison government commits itself to doing things all the time, and it almost never follows through.
Amendment (1) on the government's sheet of amendments will ensure that the Attorney-General cannot crab walk away from his commitment to prescribe a minimum number of 25 judges for Division 1. But it would still allow the Morrison government to reduce the number of judges, in what will become Division 1, from 32 to 25. And I note that there is also a vacancy that has been created recently. We do not think that that is acceptable. That is why I have moved amendments to this amendment to prescribe a minimum number of 32 judges in Division 1 so that the number of judges in that division cannot drop below 32.
But, even if our amendments to this amendment succeed, none of the changes to the bill that we are debating will address any of the fundamental problems with the legislation. The government's bill will still rob the Family Court of Australia of its essential distinguishing feature, which is that it is a court that deals only with family law matters. The government's bill will still do nothing to address any of the problems in the family law system, a system that the Liberals and Nationals have neglected for over seven years. The government's bill will still make an already bad situation even worse for Australian families. The government's bill will still, in the words of the Law Council, represent 'a terrible gamble with the lives of children and families'. But, in the event that this bill does pass the Senate, it is better that it passes with these amendments than without them.
by leave—I move Australian Greens amendments (1) and (2) on sheet 1207 together:
That the House of Representatives be requested to make the following amendment:
(1) Amendment (1), subclause (3), omit "25 Judges", substitute "40 Judges".
(2) Amendment (1), subclause (4), omit "25 Judges", substitute "40 Judges".
Statement pursuant to the order of the Senate of 26 June 2000
Amendments (1) and (2)
Amendments (1) and (2) are framed as requests because they amend the government amendments to the bill to require that the minimum number of judges to hold office in the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia (Division 1) is 40 rather than 25. As this will have the effect of increasing the number of judges to be remunerated, it will increase the expenditure under the appropriation proposed by clause 18 of theFederal Circuit and Family Court of Australia Bill 2019.
Statement by the Clerk of the Senate pursuant to the order of the Senate of 26 June 2000
Amendments (1) and (2)
If the effect of the amendments is to increase expenditure under the appropriation proposed by clause 18 of theFederal Circuit and Family Court of Australia Bill 2019, then it is in accordance with the precedents of the Senate that the amendments be moved as requests.
I'm happy to rise to seek the support of my fellow senators for my amendments, particularly Senator Patrick, as he seems pretty keen to support this shoddy legislation on the condition that there is a minimum number of judges in the legislation. I want to be clear: I completely oppose the merging of these courts because, as the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services have made clear, this merger will not fix the root causes of the problems of the family law court. As at 17 February there are 32 judges currently listed on the Family Court's website, who would become Division 1 judges, not including the Family Court of Western Australia judges. The government's amendment requiring 25 judges doesn't make any sense. It's going backwards from the current number of 32 judges. It does not make any sense to go backwards at this time, particularly to a figure of 25 in view of the crippling backlogs and workloads facing the courts.
The Chief Justice made a statement in November 2019 that at least one extra judge is required in every major registry to make a massive difference to the backlog. That would make it at least 40 judges. The Chief Justice said, '"an extra judge in every major registry would make a massive difference" to backlogs'—quoted in Tony Keim, ‘A family (court) affair’.
One Nation will not be supporting the Greens' amendment on sheet 1207, with regard to increasing the judges from 25 to 40. I was involved in the committee that actually looked into the merger of the two courts. After hearing evidence that was given, and especially being involved as deputy chair in the Family Court matter presently on foot and the advice that we actually heard, yes, there is a backlog in the court system, and, yes, the judges are terribly overworked. Why I've come to the conclusion that I'm not going to support this is that it's not really more judges that we need; it's more registrars and their support staff that we need. It has been shown that by putting registrars and senior registrars into the positions they can actually triage, hear the mentions and even the contraventions of orders and do a lot of the work of the judges. They can actually even hear determinations. That has been supported by judges and the Chief Justice and the Deputy Chief Justice.
I'd like to point out to Senator Thorpe that by appointing judges into the Federal Courts their appointment is until they're 70 years of age. They can't be sacked, unless they're sacked by both houses of parliament. That is rarely ever done. When you have registrars appointed, they can be utilised when needed in the court system, and we can bring in more or less. They are doing the work and helping the judges. A Federal Court judge in the Family Court Division 1 is basically costing the taxpayers approximately $500,000 a year. That is a huge cost to taxpayers. We found that a lot of these judges are stressed and a lot of them are overworked and that, hence, a lot actually take a lot of time away from their work because of this and they're still being paid, yet the work is not being completed—work which could be carried on by registrars.
People do need to get their cases heard, but I truly do believe that instead of putting more money into judges—because in the Family Court their average of 27 judges heard approximately 500 cases a year, yet the Federal Circuit Court judges heard about 500 to 600 cases a year each—we need to look clearly at how we're going to do it. I do support the Attorney-General's move to a minimum number of 25 judges and the appointment of more registrars.
There has been a lot of streamlining that has been happening in the court system to actually address people's needs, and their submissions are being taken up under the Lighthouse Project, which is working extremely well. I think the Attorney-General is doing an excellent job addressing the needs of the courts.
I must say that the Labor Party complains that the Liberal Party has done nothing in the last seven years. Well then, I'd ask the same question of the Labor Party: what have they done in their time when they were in parliament here? Absolutely nothing, because the increases happened. So it's alright to point the finger and have your say now on what the Liberal Party has done, but the Labor Party have in fact done absolutely nothing themselves.
This is a way forward. I have been involved in this for many years and have raised the issues continually in this house. I have reviewed it, possibly more than any other member in this place, so I feel that I am very much across this and I am supporting the government's bill. I will not support the Greens' amendment to this.
I have a couple of questions for the Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General in respect of these amendments. The Greens say they won't support these laws. If these laws are not passed tonight, what's the minimum number of justices under the current legislation?
So the government's amendment has significantly raised the bar. I want to get an understanding. That's not the number that the Attorney is setting; that's a safeguard, as far as I understand it. Is that correct? You announced tonight the appointment of an additional justice. I want to make sure that that's a safeguard rather than a target number.
That's correct, Senator Patrick. The number that has been specified in the amendment is a minimum floor. It's not to suggest that is going to be a fixed number at any time and it does represent an increase from zero under the current arrangements.
Senator Stoker, you participated in the Senate inquiry with me. You are obviously performing a different role here this evening. I'm wondering whether you recall the Senate being advised that there were five judicial vacancies at the moment, and that's not including the four additional positions that were announced in the budget. Can you seek some advice from the officers as to why those vacancies haven't been filled? In so doing, perhaps you could also advise the chamber why, when the Attorney-General is given significant notice of impending retirements, it has taken so long to fill the vacancies.
Senator Carr, I can answer that question. It is true that those vacancies exist, so your data is right on that front. They are not yet filled because a process is underway, which you would expect, Senator Carr, would be done with care and due consideration. These are important appointments. It's important we get them right. It is the case that the work is being done at the moment to fill those ones as soon as that process is complete.
I appreciate that the Attorney-General would be anxious to make sure he got the right appointments, but one could also be concerned that, if it takes a long time to fill vacancies—and we started from the premise that he didn't want to fill the vacancies at all—it does imply there is a lack of real motivation to fill vacancies. Obviously the circumstances suggest that the Attorney-General has had a long time to fill the vacancies. I ask you specifically: Does the Attorney-General intend to fill the vacancies? When will that occur? It's no good saying to me, 'I just have to make sure I get the right person.' It takes a bit more than that. Given the lack of certainty there has been about this Attorney-General's interest in maintaining the administrative efficiency of this court, how is it that it has taken so long to fill the vacancies that occurred?
Senator Carr, I'll clarify something I just said. You gave the total number of vacancies. That number is correct, although it should be clarified that most of those are in the Federal Circuit Court and only one is in the Family Court, as they currently stand. There is an intention to fill the vacancies. That process is underway. I have otherwise answered the question.
How many people have actually put up their hands to do that job, and when did they do that? How many weeks ago did they do that? Could you please give me a number on how many have actually put up their hands to do that job?
We've got positions out there that need to be filled and we've got a backlog, but you can't tell me—and it's not in-confidence—how many people have put their hands up to fill that job so I can determine who's being lazy and why the job isn't being done. How many people have put their hand up to do that job and how long ago? Come on. If you've got nothing to hide, just give the numbers. This is getting ridiculous. This is an embarrassment for the Liberal Party.
Senator Lambie, it's a process that's cabinet-in-confidence. It's being done the same way that it always has been done. It is being carefully considered and those appointments will be made in due course.
It's a process that's managed in consultation with the heads of jurisdictions, the chief justices and often in consultation with members of the representative bodies of the professions. It is a process that varies in the length of time that it takes depending on the complexity of those consultations. It doesn't have the usual recruitment time frame that you might have for hiring an office clerk or something of that nature, but it is the method that has always been used. It's a cabinet-in-confidence process and it is underway.
Let me get this right. We have a problem in our courts but you can't tell me a time frame for the Attorney-General to pick a mate to put in the job. That's exactly how the process works. We all know how it works, so please didn't give me the run-around. The Australian people would like to know what the time frame is going to be for the Liberal Party or the Attorney-General to get these jobs filled. I think it's a fair question. I think it's a serious question. The people of Australia would like to know, especially those people—not like you, who have probably never been through the Family Court system—who have got kids who are feeling that pain. For goodness sake, just answer the question please!
Senator Lambie, I don't accept the premise of your question, which was rather pejorative. As a process it will take as long as it takes to get it right. It is underway and I rely on my earlier answers.
Minister, Justice Forrest, in Brisbane, resigned a fortnight ago. This is a busy registry and His Honour should be replaced as soon as possible. In addition, there are 10 judges across the Family Court and Federal Court due to retire in 2021 and 2022. These judges should be promptly replaced with new appointments to avoid exacerbating existing delays. Further, judges may also be required to work through COVID-19 backlogs in view of the court's reliance on audiovisual link hearings since March 2020. Could you please explain what the process is to ensure that they are all backfilled in a timely manner?
Justice Forrest's announcement of His Honour's intention to retire came prior to the prescribed age of 70. When there is a retirement that is out of the ordinary expectation—and I guess it is a little earlier than expected—there's sometimes a little more time required for that to be filled. That process is underway. I don't expect it's far. We are taking every step we can to make sure that those appointments are as timely as possible, because, like you, we appreciate that they are important to getting through the critical work of the court.
I thought it was probably important that Labor outline our position in relation to the Greens amendments. Labor supports these amendments on the basis that this parliament should always be calling on the government to increase resources to a family law system that this government has starved of resources. Of course, the way in which additional resources can be allocated most efficiently is a fundamentally important question. Labor does not support this bill. We do not support the new court structure the government has put forward, so Labor has not considered whether increasing to 40 the number of judges in Division 1 would, if this were to pass the parliament, be the best way of allocating additional resources. This does not represent Labor policy. Our commitments that we take to the Australian people will be considered in the usual way and will be made public before the next election. However, we support this amendment because, at the very least, that is a matter that this government should be required to consider.
While I'm on my feet I might just pose a question to the minister. The government claims that these bills will increase court efficiency. How many judicial vacancies are there currently on the Federal Circuit Court?
My instructions are that the revenue that would come from the matters dealt with in the combined measure that is the subject of the disallowance motion is what's necessary to fund the four judges.
So let me be clear on this. The government announced an additional four positions nearly a year ago. It hasn't filled them. That's the case? I want to be clear so that I understand. You announced them a year ago in the budget and haven't filled them, and we're about to go into the next year's budget. When you say there are four vacancies, does that include the four that were announced in the budget last year, or is the real number in fact eight?
Just to clarify, Senator Carr, it is the four new ones that are the subject of the instrument that is the subject of the disallowance motion. The older four are vacant; the ones that are from other retirements are the ones that are vacant.
So it's arguable that there are in fact eight vacancies, if there are four that were announced last year plus the four from vacancies because of retirements. If we were to take the government at its word, announced in the budget last year, there are going to be four additional spots. They haven't been filled, so surely it is arguable that there are eight vacancies.
I find it an extraordinary proposition that a government with a budget the size of the Commonwealth of Australia's can't fill four judges' vacancies. I say that in the context of evidence presented to the Senate inquiry into this bill—which surely, Senator Stoker, you were surprised by—that pointed out that judges of the Federal Circuit Court were dealing with an average of some 330 matters each and pointed out the size of the average document. You'd understand these terms far better than I would. I'm not one of these legal eagles, but I do find the fact that you'd ask an average judge to have 330 cases each—one judge had 600 cases, eight judges had more than 500 cases each, 26 judges had more than 400 cases each and 41 judges had more than 300 matters each. As I say, I'm not claiming to be a lawyer, but it strikes me as an extraordinary amount of work for individual judges. There is surely a very strong case to say that this court is overburdened and that one of the consequences of that for families who are having to face the misery of going before the Federal Circuit Court is that they are having to wait years to have their matters heard. Can you confirm those figures that I've given you? Is it the case?
Secondly, why is the Attorney-General so unwilling to fill these vacancies—which, on my argument, are eight vacancies at the moment—given the extraordinary workload that exists for the judges that are currently sitting? Finally, would this not lead to a situation where we'll get even more resignations, because of the workload pressures on the court itself?
Thank you, Senator Carr. There are a few things in that question. The first thing to say is that, broadly speaking, your estimates of which judges have how much on their dockets—in the answer to your question on notice that was provided to you a little while ago—is right. I don't accept the premise of your question that says there is no intention to fill these vacancies. There is a process underway for the four retirement based vacancies to be filled, and they are in the process of being selected and appointed through the ordinary cabinet-in-confidence method.
The next matter to deal with is what is driving those retirements. There's no evidence to suggest that those who have retired have done so because they were unhappy with the workload that they had, and I'm the first person to recognise that the judges of the Federal Circuit Court are extremely hardworking. They will be assisted in that workload when they have more colleagues with which to share that load. That's why we are in the process of filling those vacancies.
It is worth noting, though, that the Federal Circuit Court at present operates a docket system, and that means, as you know, Senator Carr, each case is allocated to a particular judge who manages it from its commencement through to disposition. So, while one might have several hundred matters on their docket, it doesn't mean they all have to go to trial and all require a judgement. Many of those either settle or are dealt with in an ex tempore or immediate moral reasoning or judgement. It's only the case that a mere 15.5 per cent are ultimately judicially determined, in the sense that they get a final ruling. Of those, many are dealt with in the much faster ex tempore immediate moral reasoning method, rather than having to reserve a judgement and do the work that's associated with preparing a written judgement.
The point is that there is great variation in the amount of burden that each of those cases presents. Some are quite small; some are much larger. So, while there is variation in those numbers, they aren't always comparing apples and apples, if I might use that expression.
The concern is about resourcing. I think that's a consistent pattern in the contributions made, particularly on this—
An honourable senator interjecting—
The lack of resourcing goes to the heart of the maladministration of the court. So I'd ask you, Senator Stoker: what was the deal that the Attorney-General did with Senator Patrick in exchange for Senator Patrick's support for this bill? Specifically, what is the deal in regard to additional resources for the family law system, and in which state will those resources be deployed?
Yes, it is.
The TEMPORARY CHAIR: Thank you. Minister Stoker?
No, sorry—I'd like to ask Senator Patrick if he would like to answer that question on what the deal with the Liberal Party was.
The TEMPORARY CHAIR: Senator Lambie, I think you can ask the question and it's a matter for Senator Patrick in his next intervention when he gets the call if he wishes to respond to it. But I think, before that, I had Senator Hanson. Did you want to respond, Senator Patrick?
Senator Hanson, it is true to say that the jurisdiction of the Federal Circuit Court involves a family law jurisdiction, a general federal law jurisdiction and a smaller employment and workplace—Fair Work type—jurisdiction. The vast majority of the work of the court is in family law and there are around 40 judges, the overwhelming number of judges in the court, who deal exclusively with family law.
Senator Lambie, it is a docket system, rather than a strict rule that says you can only have one judge. It means that ordinarily, as a matter of the management of the court, there is a practice of having one judge that looks after a single matter throughout, but it's not exclusive and sometimes there are exceptions to the rule; it is just a general practice.
Senator Lambie, I can't speculate on a hypothetical case or talk about this in the abstract but, if you want to refer a particular case to me, I'm happy to deal with that offline for you.
Yes, it is. I want to know how chaotic it is when you go to Fair Work before you get to court—that case is mine—and you have six judges over three years. Don't you tell me that our courtrooms are not in chaos. There is something terrible going on. I wouldn't be the only one. How many other cases are out there where there have been more than two judges over a period of time to do a court case?
I can't deal with individual cases in the context of debating these bills, but we're talking about family law in this context. If you've got a Fair Work type matter, we will deal with it offline.
Minister, I'm interested in if you are able to clarify something for me. You said that the deal between the Attorney-General and Senator Patrick was outlined in your summing-up statement. I'm wondering if you could be a little bit more specific for us. I thought I heard what you were saying there but I don't recall any detail being expressed on the issue of resourcing. So if I could ask you again: what is the commitment of the government in terms of extra resourcing for the family law system as a result of the arrangements you have entered into with Senator Patrick?
Senator Carr, I'm more than happy to re-read my summing-up speech but I don't really think that's necessary. I rely on it in full, where I have itemised absolutely everything by way of the resourcing that is relevant to these bills.
It is a very straightforward question: what are the additional resources that the minister has committed to provide as a result of the arrangements entered into with Senator Patrick, and which state will those resources be directed to?
Senator Carr, as promised, I'm very happy to read the bits that you may have missed from my summing-up speech earlier. I'll quote from it:
As part of the implementation of these bills, the government will also provide a further Division 1 judge, two additional Division 2 judges and an extra judicial registrar to support the Adelaide registry; and an additional $14.3 million for further legal assistance in South Australia, to be used to establish a pilot program for family law matters. In addition, the government will re-establish the Family Law Council to provide further ongoing guidance on the family law system. The government recognises the advocacy and support of Senator Patrick for those initiatives.
You're providing an extra judge and some other matters in Adelaide. Last week the Law Society of Tasmania president told The Advocate that, following the retirement of the Hobart based judge last year, the Morrison government's failure to appoint a new judge to hear family law cases in Tasmania is leading to unacceptable delays and angst for Tasmanian families. The President of the Law Society of Tasmania, Trevor McKenna, told the newspaper that he had raised the matter directly with the Attorney-General before the judge retired, and yet no replacement has been appointed. Let me quote directly:
The lack of a replacement judge means the state is left with one hard working specialist judge doing the work of two judges tackling difficult issues including family violence, child abuse and mental health.
The delays in hearing cases exacerbate the emotions flowing from people separating.
It is a concern not only to the legal profession but to the many Tasmanian families coming before the court that there has been no announcement.
… … …
There is a single judge working tirelessly to assist families in resolving their complex disputes.
It is unreasonable and unacceptable to expect a single judge should have undertake the work of two judges.
So given that there are additional resources being found for Adelaide, why is the Morrison government forcing Tasmanian families to wait months and months for a replacement judge? Why is it that this level of discrimination occurs so that you can buy a vote in this chamber?
The people of Tasmania would like to know: What sort of time line are we looking at out here? Do you think it will be before the next election, before Christmas or before Easter next year? There's a bit of a bog going on down there, so how long do you think these families, if you don't mind showing them respect, will have to wait for that judge to be replaced? Can I just have a time line? I think that's a fair ask. That's my first question. My second question relates to the Attorney-General. If the Attorney-General doesn't have time, if the Attorney-General can't do it in a timely fashion, then let the legal people in Tasmania pick the judge themselves. Can that be done since you can't tell me the steps that you have to take, anyway, to pick one? Why don't you just let the people of Tasmania do that?
I'll take that last part as something of a comment. There is a process underway that is cabinet-in-confidence. It is dealing with the process of appointing a new judge for Tasmania. I don't have anything to add to what's been previously discussed.
Thank you for that information, Minister. I did take down the price of the deal with Senator Patrick. It was for one Division 1 judge, two Division 2 judges, one registrar, all in the Adelaide registry. I missed the figure, though, for was it community legal services or something else, apart from judges and registrars?
It was $14.3 million for further legal assistance in South Australia to be used to establish a pilot program for family law matters. In addition, the government will re-establish the Family Law Council to provide further guidance on the family law system. That's pretty much the rest of the paragraph.
I'm happy to withdraw. We can talk about a deal instead—a dodgy deal instead. Is that preferable, Senator Patrick? Minister, you're not willing to tell the Senate the total price of this deal, but I'm going to take a rough stab that a judge's salary is $300,000 or $400,000 a year, possibly more. So for three judges and a registrar, we're looking at another million or two dollars on top of the $14.3 million. So the total cost of this deal with Senator Patrick to obtain his vote and his support is certainly more than $15 million.
The TEMPORARY CHAIR: Minister, do you wish to respond to that?
I thank Senator Watt; I'm sure he'll have another opportunity. I'm going to say, back of the envelope, probably north of $20 million when you consider that we're talking about four years. But I actually want to go back to what I thought was a pretty extraordinary admission, if I heard you correctly, Minister, in an earlier contribution that you made. I'll phrase it as a question to you in case I have misheard you or misunderstood you. Have you informed the Senate that for the revenue of the four new judges, as I think you categorised them, you are relying on the massive hike in filing fees for migration matters in the Federal Circuit Court, which is currently the subject of a disallowance moved by Senator Griff? Did you just inform this chamber that, in order to put on the four new judges, you are relying on hitting people who wish to file migration matters? These people are overwhelmingly refugees, people seeking asylum in this country or temporary visa holders who want to file migration matters in this country. You've spent billions of dollars a year torturing refugees in offshore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru, you spend hundreds of millions of dollars every year on our punitive onshore immigration detention system and yet you want to hit up the same cohort of people with increased filing fees in the range of 450 to 500 per cent increases, which you are trying to introduce. You're saying that you need that revenue in order to pay the wages of four new judges. Is that what you just told the Senate? I will leave it there. If I'm accurate and I've understood you correctly, I will have a response. But is that right? Are you saying that you need that massive increase of nearly 500 per cent in filing fees for migration matters in the Federal Circuit Court, that you need that revenue in order to pay the wages of four new judges? Is that what you just told the Senate?
Senator McKim, I'm glad you have raised that because it gives me an opportunity to provide clarity. The arrangements for the four additional judges to whom I referred in the context of the disallowance motion are for the new judges that have been allocated for the Federal Circuit Court. But the work that they do is related to migration, so, strictly speaking, their workload won't be in the family space that is addressed in this bill, though it should be said that the vacancies of attrition have a relevance to these family matters. But it is true to say that it is absolutely relevant to the funding of those additional migration Federal Circuit Court judges that there is a fiscal responsibility in the way that we operate that court, and that means that the fees associated with, for instance, filings for migration cases will be applied to cover costs associated with dealing with migration cases, such as the costs associated with those judges.
It is the great Liberal dream, isn't it—a user-pays justice system? Don't worry yourself one iota about access to justice. Seriously, you have a go to get a go in this country, according to the Prime Minister, but you only get access to justice if you have a fat wallet or deep pockets. That's what you just got up and told this Senate. I make the point again: this is the same cohort of people that you are happy to spend billions—with a 'b'—of the taxpayer dollars on every year, establishing offshore detention centres on Manus Island and on Nauru. You are still spending north of $1 billion a year, even though the numbers in those centres, thankfully and belatedly, have come down significantly. You are prepared to spend that money. You are prepared to spend money running an intensely punitive onshore detention regime in this country, where innocent people who have done nothing wrong are imprisoned arbitrarily and indefinitely at a massive cost to the taxpayer. You are then saying that you have to come in and hit the same cohort of people who are trying to appeal politicised decisions made by government agencies to deny them refugee status, to deny them the migration status that they want. They want to file an appeal against that in the Federal Circuit Court, and you want to put their fees up by nearly 500 per cent in order to fund these new judges.
I've got an idea for you, Minister: just fund them out of the consolidated fund. That's the way you should be funding new judges. You don't need to increase fees by nearly 500 per cent in migration matters, pricing a whole cohort of people out of the justice system—some of whom, I might add, are denied work rights by your government, and many of whom have been recently or over the last two or three years cut off income support by your government. They've got no money, they are begging for food, and the charity and refugee sector have had to step up to feed and house these people because you treat them like they are criminals, like they are dogs. But they are actually people, human beings, with children and families, and your government's actions have resulted in them getting kicked out on the street. Many of them can't work because you won't give them work rights. Many of them don't have income because you cut them off our social security system. And now you want to increase their filing fees by 500 per cent. I've got an idea: fund the new judges straight out of the consolidated fund.
I would like to know whether you, Assistant Minister Stoker, or the Attorney-General have the courage to stand in front of Senator Griff and tell him what is going on here with his disallowance motion that he intends to put up? What are you doing and where do you intend that money to come from? If you know he is doing that disallowance motion, have you—either yourself or the Attorney-General—had the courage or the decency to go and see Senator Griff in relation to his disallowance motion?
I do just want to pursue this issue a little further. What we've learned tonight—and I think this is the first time this has actually been on the record—is that these new four judges' positions will be funded from the government's proposed fee increases in migration matters, which are now the subject of a disallowance motion moved by Senator Griff. I will have some follow-up questions, but can I just confirm that that is correct?
The filing fees for the Federal Circuit Court were, if one were to do a comparison over time, quite low for many years compared with those imposed in the AAT and in the Federal Court or the Family Court. As part of the 2020-21 budget, the Morrison government is providing $35.7 million in funding to provide additional judicial and registrar resources, primarily for the Federal Circuit Court's migration jurisdiction but also in the family law jurisdiction.
I'll delve into the detail of that so that it's not just the broadbrush answers I gave earlier. I'll give you some precision, Senator Watt, since it has peaked your interest. That will support an additional three general federal law judges—when I say 'general federal law' I'm talking about the migration work predominantly—accompanied by two additional registrars, and one additional family law judge, which makes up the four, accompanied by five additional registrars, as well as serving to increase the base funding for the court. This increase in judicial and registrar resourcing will allow the court to resolve more matters every year, which will assist in addressing the backlog in migration matters and reduce the time families with family law matters spend before the courts after separation.
The additional resourcing is offset by an increase to the application fees, which I referred to a moment ago, for migration litigants in the Federal Circuit Court. As I mentioned a moment ago, currently the Federal Circuit Court application fees for migration matters are significantly lower than the fee that is imposed, for instance, in the AAT. This change will adjust the Federal Circuit Court application fee from $690 to $3,330 so that it is set at the midpoint between the fees in the lower AAT and the higher Federal Court fee. We'll continue to make sure that applicants have access to the court system by maintaining a full fee exemption where paying the fee would result in financial hardship, and it will be accompanied by a new partial fee exemption set at half the full rate, which will deal with many of the circumstances referred to in the commentary given by Senator McKim a little bit earlier.
By way of example, of the more than 25,000 migration lodgements in the AAT in 2018-19, only 3.6 per cent sought a fee reduction, and less than two per cent of those qualified for one. Importantly, the revenue from that change, as I said at the outset, is being reinvested in the courts to improve the efficiency and the experience of court users, including to provide assistance for families navigating a separation and for applicants of migration matters.
Thank you, Minister. I take it from that, then, that the fee increases being proposed for migration matters, which are the subject of the disallowance motion, will be used partly to fund these four additional positions that were announced for the Federal Circuit Court in the last budget and for other things as well. It's partly to fund these new four positions?
As I said, in last year's budget the government announced these four new judicial positions in the Federal Circuit Court. Has the government ever made public that fulfilling that commitment would require increases to court fees, which are now being proposed?
I haven't had an opportunity to review the budget papers, but you're assuring the chamber that that detail was made clear in the budget—the detail being that fee increases would be required to pay for a commitment the government was making in the budget? I can go and have a look at the budget papers and see that, can I?
We will obviously go and have a look at that, because that was certainly news to me. I also just want to briefly return to the deal that the government has done with Senator Patrick in return for his support for this legislation. Is there any other registry, apart from the Adelaide registry, that is receiving additional Family Court resources in conjunction with this bill?
We have announced that there will be an additional judge appointed. The location for that judge has not been fixed. We will consult with the head of jurisdiction about where that is most needed, and that's how it will be placed.
But, in terms of announcements made this year that are clearly related to the passage of this bill, it's only the Adelaide registry that is receiving extra resources—that's correct, isn't it?
Senator Watt, I don't know how much more clear I can make it. All of the things that I set out in the summing-up speech are additional resources that come as part of a package for this bill. You will notice when you review the summing-up speech that the additional judge for a location yet to be determined is listed in those items. I don't see how I can make it any clearer than already provided.
No-one has asked that question, which is: why is it only the Adelaide registry that is getting the special sweetheart deal of four additional judges and a $14.3 million pilot? Why only Adelaide?
First of all, I'll just go to some of the claims being made by the Labor Party. I want to put on the record that I've been involved with this bill for well over two years. I was involved in the Senate inquiry back in December 2018 and, since that time, I have been advocating to the Attorney-General for additional resources for South Australia. That's my job as a South Australian senator. So I want to make it very clear that the measures that have been announced by the Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General today are measures that I had talked to and advocated to the Attorney-General two years ago. This is not something that was come to overnight. I, as a South Australian senator, will always advocate for South Australia, and I'll point out that there's nothing that stops Senator Watt from wandering over to the Attorney-General's office and advocating for the registry in Brisbane, if he chooses to. Unfortunately, he's bound by party lines. If you look at the Constitution—I know you know it, because you are a very learned lawyer, Senator Watt—you will note that in the Constitution we don't have parties. We don't have parties in the Constitution; we have senators that represent their states. What you may have done in failing to advocate for Queensland is put your party ahead of your state.
I proudly stand here and say that I have advocated for my state to deal with an issue that I know has caused difficulties for the community in South Australia—that being a lack of resources in South Australia. Please do not stand up in the chamber, Senator Watt, and suggest there is anything wrong with a South Australian senator advocating for resources for South Australia. I make it very, very clear: I made this arrangement with the Attorney-General in the last parliament; this is not an overnight thing. I've been advocating for this for well over two years, and I'm very grateful that the government has listened to my advocacy. I've presented my case, and the Attorney has listened and granted these resources. Try it. Through you, Mr Acting Deputy President, Senator Watt is a Queensland senator, but—as far as I'm aware, and he can stand up and tell me if I'm wrong—he hasn't gone to the Attorney and sat down with him and said: 'This is what I'd like for Brisbane. This is what I'd like to have happen in the Brisbane registry.' He doesn't, because he's got to comply with his party guidelines. So I just wanted to clarify that in relation to the advocacy that I've done for South Australia for some time.
I want to go to some issues. I might point out that, throughout this entire process, I've been engaging with Mr Dreyfus in the other place. They've been respectful conversations. I won't go to the nature of those conversations, but, in almost every conversation I've had with him, I've asked him what the alternative arrangements would be. You revealed tonight, Senator Watt, that you don't have alternative arrangements; you're going to make those arrangements public just prior to the next election. I wanted to see what the alternative might have been to the government's proposition, and the Labor Party would not tell me. In your speech on the second reading—I listened very carefully to it, Senator Watt—you advocated the New South Wales Bar Association's model. I want to go to page 6 of the document that I tabled. It talks about lack of resources in the courts across both governments, but it also says:
The Family Court can be a gold star institution once again but this requires reform in two key areas—
One of them is resourcing. The other is:
… structural improvement to unify the family law system by creating a single family court …
I ask the minister: isn't the effect of this bill to create a single court, a single point of entry, under what is now called the Federal Circuit and Family Law Court?
I thought it was necessary to get on my feet quickly to defend my honour against this scandalous attack from Senator Patrick. He has accused me of failing in my duties to the people of Queensland. I, of course, would argue that, by opposing this bill, as all Labor senators are doing, that's how I'm fulfilling my duties to the Queensland public. This is bad law that will make family law matters worse for people who are already struggling with a failing system. Unfortunately, Senator Patrick does not have the same principled position on this that Labor senators and, indeed, other crossbench senators do as well. But, if he wants to ignore his principles and do a deal with the government, that's a matter for Senator Patrick.
When did the government agree to dedicate additional resources to the Adelaide registry and not to other registries?
I don't accept the premise that we have not provided resources in other places. There are a range of resources provided as a consequence of this bill, including, as I've already outlined, resources that will be ultimately located in places other than Adelaide.
It was finalised as a part of discussions about making sure that the bill was suitable to the crossbench. I couldn't give you a precise date, but it was something that evolved as a consequence of the interest that has been taken by the crossbench in getting this law right over a period of time.
I'm not sure if the minister is aware of the workload in the Adelaide registry relative to other registries. If it's of a mind to allocate more resources to the Adelaide registry, would it not be appropriate and fair for the government to dedicate similar resources to other registries in the country that have at least the same or bigger workload issues?
I note that the minister is a senator for Queensland, as are you, Mr Acting Deputy President McGrath. I would expect that the minister would be advocating heavily for the needs of Queensland registries. Is the minister aware, for instance, that the average time between the date on which a matter is filed and the date on which judgements are being delivered in Adelaide is currently 20.2 months, whereas in the Rockhampton registry it's 21.3 months, and in Brisbane it's 23.8 months? Minister, as a senator for Queensland, why is it then that the Adelaide registry is receiving additional resources when Brisbane and Rockhampton, for example, have bigger workload issues and longer delays for applicants in the court?
Thank you, Senator Watt. You're right: I do advocate very fiercely for the needs of Queensland. Queenslanders watching these proceedings will be pleased to know that the Lighthouse Project pilot, for which funding has recently been allocated by the government, is operational in Queensland. Indeed, there is funding approved as part of the most recent budget, as a consequence in particular of the advocacy of Queensland senators from the coalition side, for upgrades to and improved and safer facilities in, for instance, the Rockhampton registry. I don't accept the premise of your question. There are enormous investments being made in Queensland.
Thank you for enlightening the chamber about those investments, but neither of those investments will do anything about the lengthy delays that are being experienced by family law parties in either Rockhampton or Brisbane, will they?
Minister, are you aware that in the Cairns registry it is currently, on average, 41.2 months—well over three years—after a matter has been filed in the family law jurisdiction that a judgement is delivered? In Cairns it takes 41.2 months, well over three years, to have a family law matter finalised, yet the government decides to invest additional resources in Adelaide. What's so bad about Cairns? Why doesn't Cairns deserve the same as Adelaide when the wait is more than double the wait in Adelaide?
I'm glad you raised that question, Senator Watt, because it provides an opportunity to explain the good work that the Chief Justice is currently doing in Cairns. There can be a tendency for distortion in some of the statistics. For instance, there are some matters that can be finalised quickly because they are simple matters; some matters are quite complex. There's also inconsistency between different judges as to whether they tackle the tough ones first and get those reserved judgements out first or whether they deal with some of the smaller fish and leave those more difficult ones on the shelf to be dealt with after the little ones. In Cairns, there was a practice of the judicial officer dealing with the simpler matters first. I'm pleased to say that the Chief Justice is actively tackling that right now to make sure that the position of Cairns will be even better because those longer, tougher ones are being tackled.
That's very reassuring but the fact remains that currently in Cairns people are waiting twice as long to have family law matters resolved as they are in Adelaide. So again I ask you: why is the Cairns registry not getting the increase in resourcing that we're seeing in Adelaide? Is it because there's no Independent senator from Cairns who is prepared to sell out their principles and do a deal with the government in the way that Senator Patrick has?
I don't accept that pejorative premise of the question. This entire bill will reduce the times that are taken for matters to progress through this court, and all people who use the court will benefit from that.
Minister, can you advise the Senate whether any other commitments have been made to Senator Patrick, particularly in relation to the AAT—whether they be changes to the resourcing of the AAT, structure of the AAT or procedure of the AAT? Have any commitments been made by the government to Senator Patrick in relation to changes to the AAT?
The statistics that are provided for how long it takes to finalise a matter are demonstrative of the cases that have concluded. Right? You understand that? The very fact that the statistics for Cairns show that in the six months to 1 January 2021 the matters that are concluded have the figure 41.2 shows that there has been an active, strategic and careful tackling of the oldest cases to clear them out, to make sure that there is resolution of those matters instead of letting them hang around. The people of Cairns should be comforted to see that spike in numbers because it means the oldest, longest cases are cleared rather than hanging around.
I want to go to the question of advocacy, and I'll just describe to those that might be listening how things might work on a pragmatic level. As a South Australian senator, I often take advantage of the fact that Senator Ruston is a South Australian senator and a minister. Throughout my engagement over the last three years in relation to matters dear to my heart and to the hearts of my constituents, I will often contact Senator Ruston and talk to her, whether it be about wine, water or a social security matter. I take advantage of the fact that, as a minister, she's in a position of power and that I've got close access to her, because I can just pick up the phone and say, 'Can I have a coffee with you, please.' In that context, we have the Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General, who is a Queenslander. So I ask the minister, the assistant Attorney: how many times has Senator Watt picked up the phone to you and said, 'I'd like to have a sit-down with you and talk to you about lack of resources in the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court in either Brisbane or Cairns'? I wonder how many times he's picked up the phone and taken advantage of the fact that you're a Queenslander and a minister in that portfolio. He clearly has particular concerns. How many times has he picked up the phone and advocated for Queensland with you about that issue?
There needs to be some clarification here. A lot of misperceptions have been thrown around the chamber. Labor is asking what deals have been done. The fact is that Senator Patrick has actually got an extra judge or registrar or whatever. Good on him. Good luck to him. No problem. I remember talking to former Prime Minister Turnbull. To get the backpacker tax through, the Greens were given $100 million for Landcare. Also, for Senator Lambie's vote for the tax cuts there was $150 million that went towards housing in Tasmania. Good on them. No problem. Our job here is to stand up for our states.
Now, I'll put something on the record. Have I done any deals? None. Zilch. Nothing. That is because I didn't ask for them. I believe in this policy and I have called for a merger of these two courts. The family law courts need to be addressed, and that's exactly what has been done here. You're playing politics, because you're not really looking at facts and you have not been involved in understanding what is happening in our family law system.
The facts are that in the 2020-21 budget the government provided the Federal Circuit Court with funding for an additional family law division judge and five family law judicial registrars. This will further help support the work of the court and alleviate pressure on judges.
Registrars—we're talking about registrars. As the CEO of the Federal Circuit Court told the Senate committee inquiry into the bill, the chief judge has also focused on supporting judges through greater assistance from senior registrars and registrars aimed at alleviating the workloads of and pressures on judges. Registrars are doing this by undertaking many high-volume duty lists, as well as interim and interlocutory disputes, and by undertaking dispute resolution in both property and parenting disputes. There is a program at the moment, the registrar assistance pilot. The Federal Circuit Court has recently introduced the registrar assistance pilot, whereby judges can be provided with assistance by a registrar conducting duty list work, ADR or FDR or other appropriate court work. In the first six months of the pilot operation, registrars have provided the equivalent of 128 days of assistance, dealing with over 1,500 procedural hearings.
It's not all about the judges, and that's what you're going on about. It's about clearing the backlog in the courts. I visited the court in Brisbane last week and I spoke to them. Because of COVID they had extra cases put on, but they've cleared those cases and also cleared about 13 or 15 per cent of the backlog. I mentioned before the Lighthouse Project that has been introduced. That is streamlining by merging the two courts. You have two sets of rules and two sets of processes. This is merging them all into the one process, which is easier for the Australian people who are going through the system. The Lighthouse Project is done online. They can sort out the domestic violence problems that they have. They know how to triage it and put them through the system.
Contravention orders have had a big backlog. They take over seven months in the Family Court and 6.9 months in the Federal Circuit Court to be heard. They hope now to address those within 14 days. If we're honest with ourselves, it's not just the judges. There are a lot of other things that need to be addressed if we're going to make improvements in the family law courts. Yes, families have had to wait a long time to have their hearings. The Federal Circuit Court deals with 90 per cent of the cases that are heard.
In the 2020-21 budget the government announced it is providing significant investment—around $120 million over four years from 2020-21—for the family law system. This includes funding for family law services of $87.3 million; an additional family law federal court judge, five additional family law registrars and further support staff; funding of $2.5 million for the federal family law courts to continue operating specialist COVID-19 lists; $4.8 million of additional funding for the Family Violence and Cross-Examination of Parties Scheme; and $7.7 million for the relocation of federal law court registries in Rockhampton and Launceston to safer and more secure premises, so there is something for Tasmania. Also there is $1.8 million of funding to implement federal family violence orders and $2.5 million of funding for a new case management system for the Family Court of Western Australia.
The government has also introduced legislation, which has now passed this parliament, to support the implementation of the new family safety risks screening and triage processes being piloted in the family law courts, which is to be known as the Lighthouse Project, with $13.5 million of government investment. So you can't say that the government have sat on their hands and done nothing about it. As I said before, it is the Labor Party that sat on their hands and did nothing about it. When I was here in the other place in 1996 I was talking about family law matters. Nothing whatsoever happened over the years. This is why I have been so involved in this whole matter.
I take my hat off to Rex Patrick. He is supporting the government on this, as is One Nation. I do believe that it is going to help the people of Australia. Stop playing politics in this place and look at what is right for the Australian people. I'm sick and tired, and so are the people of Australia. We're fed up with you knocking something purely because you're on the opposition bench.
It has been proven that this is going to help the Australian people. People are suffering, families are suffering, kids are suffering and all you're worried about is your job in this place. It's about standing up and representing the Australian people the best we can. We should come to a decision that is going to be beneficial to them and solve their problems, because, through the family law system, too many kids are being dragged away from their families, too many people are suiciding and too many people are being murdered in this country. This is part of the way of dealing with this and helping those families. It is not just the mums and dads; it is the grandparents and extended families. I heard that through the whole inquiry we've gone through. This is a start to mending the problems that we have. It is about time that, instead of nitpicking and carrying on with politics, we actually tried to agree together on what is best for this and started working for the Australian people.
I just want to go back to the document that I tabled. For the assistance of those who have a copy, on page 11 it has a diagram of the model that Senator Watt suggested would be the right model for the future. This is the model of the New South Wales Bar Association: 'Family Court of Australia 2.0'. I look at the diagram, and, at the very bottom of it, it talks about a single point of entry for all family law matters. Then it talks about a 'Division 2', which is formerly the family law jurisdiction of the Federal Circuit Court. Then it talks about a 'Division 1', which is the former Family Court of Australia, original jurisdiction. Then it shows an appeal division, which is the former Family Court appeals jurisdiction. Appeals from the 'Family Law Appeal Division' go to the High Court. That's exactly what is being done in this bill. So, Minister, unless I've got this wrong, this is actually the model that is being implemented by this bill. Is that not the case? Isn't it effectively the very model that Senator Watt advocated for in his second reading contribution?
Thank you, Senator Patrick, for the question. It is substantially the same as what is being proposed in this bill. I'll highlight the similarities and differences, if that's of some assistance. The model that is proposed in the 2.0 model does involve a single point of entry, and there is a single point of entry in what is contained in this bill. There are two divisions, just as in the 2.0 model, although it is slightly differently structured so that it's not necessary for all Federal Circuit Court judges to resign and then get reappointed. The different structure that's been used avoids that inconvenience or that administrative consequence. In relation to family law appeals, the 2.0 model envisaged a separate appeal division, whereas there is an ability to appoint either a full court or a single judge to hear appeals in Division 2, and, again, appeals to the High Court are in the usual way. So there are remarkable similarities between the New South Wales 2.0 model that was advocated for by Senator Watt and that which is proposed by the government in this bill.
I just wonder—and maybe Senator Watt might wish to answer the question—whether or not he's talked to you about what is clearly a very similar structure to what he's advocating. Has he made representations to you, in his role as the senator representing the shadow Attorney-General, as to what his fundamental issue is with the current bill, noting it's very similar to the model he proposes?
I haven't had any discussions of that nature. Though it is worth noting that, in what I understand was 2010, the then Labor government proposed a bill based on this model. It was really not all that different to the bill that is before this chamber, and it represents some irony that we are arguing at length today.
I have come to this debate today in the middle of a really important discussion, essentially because there has been a bit of back and forth about the waiting times in Far North Queensland as opposed to the waiting times in Adelaide. But can I just firstly deal with this issue around the 2.0 model. As the minister says, there are some similarities. One of the main differences is that the 2.0 model is a specialised model. It is proposed by people who are experts in this field, and we take the advice of those stakeholders who are working in this field day in, day out, dealing with family violence matters. That's the model that they have proposed, and it is different from the government's model, the model that you're voting for tonight, because it's substantially supported by stakeholders. The government's model is opposed by those organisations. That matters. It counts for something, because those people are the one whose are dealing with this on a daily basis.
I also want to address some of the comments that Senator Hanson made, because I think this is important in the context of us talking about waiting times—how long people who are engaging with this process have to wait to get some sort of resolution, which, as we know, in Cairns is about 41.2 months now. Senator Hanson comes at this with some justification, and some of the things that she talks about—the stress that people go through and the terrible conflict that is created through the family law system—are certainly relevant, and no-one is discounting that. I said in my speech today, and I will call it out if the minister won't, that, when Senator Hanson makes comments that imply that somehow the family law system is the reason why people commit family violence, those comments are wrong. They are wrong, and they should be called out every single time that she says them. It says a lot about this government and this minister that they don't call out those comments, because family violence—
The TEMPORARY CHAIR: The imputation is that the minister, by not challenging it, is agreeing with the assertion or is somehow deficient in her duty.
I don't see that I'm implying anything other than calling out those comments. Until this moment, I haven't heard the same comments from the minister. I will withdraw and allow the minister to have that opportunity once I ask my question.
The TEMPORARY CHAIR: Thank you. Please proceed. You have the call.
It's an important distinction to make. It's an important component of the support that we see from that side of the chamber around these changes. Somehow they think that they can use family violence as a justification to make changes to the Family Court. It's just not right and it does need to be called out.
I'll move on now to the substantive matter I have learned about tonight—some resourcing changes to the Adelaide registry as opposed to other registries around the country. We know that in Cairns there is an acute waiting problem. It's an example that's been used, and I'm sure that there are other registries that are problematic. I have met with the North Queensland Women's Legal Service on many an occasion. The No. 1 thing that they wanted to talk to me about the first time I spoke to them was their concerns about this merger bill and their concerns about the length of time that it's taking to get matters heard through the Cairns registry. What we have heard tonight is that there will be resources delivered to the registry in South Australia—because, as I have inferred from the debate tonight, some sort of deal has been done between Senator Patrick and the government—
Senator Patrick interjecting—
The TEMPORARY CHAIR: Order! Senator Patrick, interjections are disorderly.
Senator Patrick, I take that interjection. I will tell you tonight that I advocate every single day for every member of the Far North Queensland community and every single person who is affected by family violence, and you—
Senator Patrick interjecting—
Advocating for one portion of the community in this aspect makes you derelict in your duties as a senator of this parliament, because every single person—
The TEMPORARY CHAIR: Senator Green, please resume your seat. Senator Patrick, interjections are disorderly. Senator Green, I remind you to address your remarks through the chair. You have the call.
I would like to know from the minister—
The TEMPORARY CHAIR: Senator Hanson, on a point of order?
I do have a point of order. Senator Green has made a comment that, in my remarks tonight, I said family violence is the reason why we are supporting the merger of the two courts. At no point in my speech tonight or ever on the floor of this parliament have I referred to family violence as a reason for supporting the merger of the two courts. I want a withdrawal.
The TEMPORARY CHAIR: Do you claim to have been misrepresented, Senator Hanson?
The TEMPORARY CHAIR: I'll take that as a debating point. You have made your point. Senator Green, you have the call.
What I would like to know from the minister, given that a deal has now been done to divert resources, or send resources—I don't know if they're being diverted; I'm sure you've answered that in a question previously. Given that there will be resources going to the Adelaide registry when we know that the Cairns registry is in acute need of resources, it has been starved of resources and there are acute waiting times, have you as a Queensland senator, or in your position now, met with the Women's Legal Service Queensland about this bill and did you give them a reassurance that this bill would reduce waiting times in Cairns?
Senator Green, there was an awful lot in that contribution. The bill will, across the board, reduce waiting times. As I have stated in earlier answers to questions, there has been some considerable and commendable work done by the Chief Justice to clear from the Cairns registry the cases that represented the oldest ones. So there's been a significant improvement demonstrated on the current numbers. So I will rely on my previous answer there.
There was earlier commentary that I'll take as a question about what I'll paraphrase as an allegation that this bill would somehow reduce specialisation; I don't think that mischaracterises your concern. The idea of a loss of specialisation is, quite frankly, false. The very same specialist Federal Circuit Court judges that are hearing family law cases today in the Federal Circuit Court—there are 40 of them, they exclusively hear family law cases and they have an average of 25 years experience apiece in family law—will continue to hear family law cases in the merged court. Interestingly, the level of expertise at present in the Family Court is actually lower, in the sense that the practitioners that have been appointed to that court are not exclusively family law practitioners. So in many ways this represents, at worst, the same level of specialisation and, at best, the opportunity for improvement.
It's worth saying too that, to the extent that there has been a concern expressed that wraparound services—particularly in relation to family violence—might be affected, that is a misconception. I referred earlier to the evidence of the CEO of the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court to the Senate committee, who made it very clear that there is no difference between the wraparound services that are provided in the Family Court and those provided in the Federal Circuit Court. Because the internal family law services are shared between the courts, they are already identical. So, again, there's no expectation that there will be a decline in wraparound services for those needing them, particularly in family violence cases, and one can expect no adverse impact on specialisation. Indeed, at this point in time, we have better specialisation in the Federal Circuit Court than we do in the Family Court.
I just want to go back to the Cairns registry and the comments made by Senator Green in terms of her listening to her constituents and to people in her community. That is indeed what I do. I know that she does work actively in her community. I might put on the record that I attended all of the hearings in the last parliament in relation to this bill, which caused it to be substantially changed, basically to the form that it is now. But even over the last couple of weeks, I have spoken to people from the Law Council, I've spoken to justices of the court, I've spoken to community legal services, and I have spoken, indeed, to the Chief Justice of the Family Court, to the Deputy Chief Justice and to the former Attorney-General under the Labor government who introduced the bill. I won't go to the details of the conversation with the Chief Justice, but I asked them to guide me in whether or not this bill would help them, and the impression that I walked away with was that it would.
The difference perhaps between what I've done and what Senator Green may have done is that, having received all the information that was provided to me as I listened to the community and various different stakeholders, I then turned and walked to the Attorney-General's office and had a conversation, one of many conversations, with the Attorney-General. Indeed, I also recall having a conversation with the assistant minister outside the chamber just recently about this bill as well.
There are two parts of what you need to do. You need to listen to the community and then you need to actually go to the people in power. That's a different prospect to probably what happens normally, where you go to caucus and you complain and you work up tactics and all those sorts of things. That's not how you successfully advocate for your state. What you do is you pick up the phone and say, 'I would like to speak to the Attorney-General. I'm a senator for Queensland.' I am sure that you would get an audience. That's how you properly represent your state.
So I might ask the same question of the assistant minister, who is a Queenslander, so no doubt shares lots of common views. I would ask the assistant minister: how many times has Senator Green wandered up to you and sought a meeting in respect of court-related matters in Cairns?
Assistant Minister, the head of Women's Legal Services Australia said: 'Our opposition to the proposed merger of the family courts is centred on ensuring that the safety and best interests of the child and the safety of adult victims-survivors of family violence in family law proceedings. Safety must come first in family law.' What do you say to that?
We, too, think safety is an extremely important consideration, and that's why we have made, for instance, recent investments in improving safety facilities and the like in Launceston and Rockhampton. That is an important consideration. The Lighthouse Project is an important investment that is all about family violence and safety. These are extremely important considerations, and they are at the forefront of what we do.
This is the head of Women's Legal Services in this country who is very concerned about this bill and the proposed merger. Are you concerned that somebody who is heading up an Australian body such as Women's Legal Services is concerned? Are you concerned about that? You're making decisions in this chamber when peak bodies, including the Law Council and others, and judges, are saying that this is no good. Do you have any comment to make to those people? What's your comment to those people, Minister?
Senator Thorpe, of course we listen to and consider and engage with organisations that have experience in these areas, and we will continue to do so in the time to come. We are always open to new ideas or new strategies for improving people's safety. That's part of the reason why we have invested in domestic violence units, it's part of the reason why we have invested in the Lighthouse Project and it's part of the reason why we have invested in the kinds of location upgrades that I referred to earlier. Safety is very important, and that's why we are doing what we are doing.
Senator Thorpe, I don't accept the premise of the question, in that you've suggested that the only purpose of that report was some sort of reverse-engineered justification. That wasn't the case at all. The consultation process that is constantly being engaged in involves all the heads of jurisdiction. This bill involved consultation with heads of jurisdiction who have on-the-ground understanding of the communities in which they work, and, importantly, there was engagement with the multitude of reports that considered a range of issues, including those affecting Indigenous Australians, and all of those were factored in and considered as part of formulating the bill.
Just to add my experience to it, I visited the Southport court last week, which is a specialised court—we have about five in Queensland—that deals with domestic violence. I can't remember the name of the senator who raised this issue, but, just to bring this to the notice of the house, in the specialised court they actually do have special areas. If people have concerns about attending the court, they notify the court and security guards go outside and escort them into the courthouse. There is a section for men to sit and there is a section for women to sit. There's also a special area that people, men or women, can go to if they're very concerned or traumatised or they have any problems. We are addressing those concerns. The merger of the two courts is not—if Women's Legal Services is raising as a concern that the merger of the two courts shouldn't go ahead purely based on safety, nothing's going to change; whether we leave the system the way it is now or whether we merge the two courts, it is not going to change. But they have been addressing the concerns of any Australians, men and women, who are faced with domestic violence to ensure their safety, and they provide that safety to them.
Minister, the Attorney-General's Department gave evidence to the inquiry into family, domestic and sexual violence in December 2020 that there hasn't been a specific study of what impact the merger would have with respect to family and domestic violence issues. Why are you persisting with this flawed proposal?
I just wanted to go back. I didn't actually get an answer to one of my earlier questions to Senator Stoker, which was: has the government made any other commitments to Senator Patrick, particularly in relation to the AAT?
No. But while I've got Senator Watt—I beg your pardon, Senator Lambie, I'll be quick. Earlier Senator Watt put to me that there were four existing vacancies, and I agreed to that. I've just checked it with the office, and I have the numbers in front of me now. The existing vacancies are actually six. Five are in the recruitment process. The sixth one represents the very recent notice given by Justice Barker from Tasmania. That was on 31 January, and there is no candidate for that one yet, but the others are all in an advanced process.
I wanted to find out a little bit more about the $14.3 million pilot program for Adelaide. Could you give me a little bit more detail on that? I think that was over four years, so when does it start? Can you give me some detail on what that's all about?
Is that the only detail you have for $14.3 million that you just gave for a pilot program in South Australia? You've got nothing else to add to that? Is that it, the bare bones, for that $14.3 million? You haven't actually gone any further than that? If you can't answer that, maybe you can get up and reply to me, if that's okay, through the chair, Senator Patrick, what you are hoping to achieve out of that $14.3 million that you're getting for the pilot program?
I'm happy for Senator Patrick to add anything he would like to, but I can say that we will have more to say about that in due course. But the purpose for which it is to be applied is for legal assistance for a need that has been identified and brought to us by Senator Patrick. He's evidenced the need for it, and that's why the action has been taken.
I'll just put on the record that I haven't agreed to anything in great detail with the Attorney. But, after consultation with stakeholders, one of the areas that is lacking in the Family Court area, particularly for those that need legal aid, is that they often go to legal aid and get assistance up until the point when they're basically listed to go to court and, in those circumstances, what happens then is the person who's been supported, in essence, gets cut loose. They either have to appoint a lawyer or a barrister or self-represent. This is not in any way disparaging of any self-representing litigant. Often they are forced because they have no other alternative. So one of the things I have talked to the Attorney about is the ability to perhaps look at funding beyond the advice stage into the court stage, and that has direct application in respect of this bill, because one of the aims of this bill is to streamline processes. Again, with no criticism of any self-represented litigant, but they can tie up the court because of their lack of expertise. I know they're only doing it because they have to. This may be an avenue. As I said, the details are not sorted out, but the general principles are that we can perhaps extend this, and that's why it is a pilot. You will have heard the Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General talk about a pilot to work out whether or not, by spending money in that area, we can actually assist people and, at the same time, reduce delays in the court.
I also want to respond briefly to Senator Watt in relation to the AAT. I want to confirm that my discussions with the government in relation to the AAT have mostly centred on my concerns about appointees. You might recall that on 1 August 2019 I moved a motion in the Senate relating to the AAT, calling on the federal government to urgently introduce a bill into the parliament to repeal section 7(3)(b) of the act, which is the section that allows attorneys on both sides to appoint people—some might call them mates; others might call non-legally qualified people—to the AAT. Do you know what? There will be silence in the chamber right now because both sides have made questionable appointments to the AAT. I put that to a vote, and I'm looking the Hansard now, looking at the Journals, and Senator Watt voted against that. Those are my most recent discussions in public and in this place in relation to the AAT. Sadly, I was advocating for a change, recommended by no less than Justice Callinan, who had done a review into the AAT, to remove that particular provision that allowed those sorts of appointees. I'm of the strong belief that, in order to be in the AAT, you really do need to be qualified, not because someone, one of your friends, has influence in this building. I just wanted to put that on the record. From memory, that's my last dealing with the AAT, with the government and with the Labor Party. Unfortunately, in both instances, I was not supported.
We're approaching the time when we are going to vote on this legislation and on the amendments that the Greens have moved to the government's amendment. I have been saying in this place for a long time that we need to do something about the family law courts to address the needs and concerns of many Australians and their extended families. But it's about the children.
What I hope now is that, after this debate, the Greens and the Labor Party will see that we need to be unified in agreement to actually start working for the people of Australia. You have not shown me any reason why I should shift my vote from supporting the government on the merger of the two courts. The merger of the two courts has already started to happen, with the Lighthouse Project, where they're working together to improve access to the courts for families of Australia, to shorten the periods of time, to address their needs and concerns. This legislation can only improve it even further, and yet you are still so reluctant to admit that you have got it wrong. The whole debate is not about domestic violence. Senator Green tried to bring up that I've used domestic violence as a reason for supporting the merger of the two courts. I never once mentioned it on the floor of the parliament.
Never once on the floor of parliament have I mentioned domestic violence when saying why I have supported this legislation. I have stated my case for why this needs to be done. Again, the Greens and the Labor Party are twisting my words, making me sound totally different from what I am. I'm used to it. It has happened over all the past years. They try to denigrate me and twist my words to suit them so that the people don't really know the truth. The fact is that we do need to work together, and I've said this before: it is about the Australian people; it is not about us.
I think that anyone in this place who knows me would know that I do my research, I am passionate about what I believe in and my vote cannot be bought. I am standing up for the Australian people, and that's what we have to do here. I will reiterate that: it is up to us to make the right decisions to move forward for the people of this country. As I said, there's so much harm being done. We got it wrong with the Family Law Act 1975. We have moved on from there. We are now at a stage where we have to make a difference.
Order! It being 9.30, the time allotted for debate on the bills has expired. In accordance with the resolution agreed to earlier today, I will now put the questions on the remaining stages of the bill, firstly dealing with the Australian Greens amendments on sheet 1207. The question is that the requests for amendments to government amendment (1) on sheet UN126, moved by the Australian Greens, on sheet 1207 be agreed to.