About the Court

The Family Court of Australia, through its specialist judges and staff, helps Australians to resolve their most complex family disputes.

The Family Court of Australia is a superior court of record established by Parliament in 1975 under Chapter III of the Constitution. It commenced operations on 5 January 1976 and consists of a Chief Justice, a Deputy Chief Justice and other judges. The Court maintains registries in all Australian states and territories except Western Australia.

Goal

The Court’s goal is to deliver excellence in service for children, families and parties through effective judicial and non-judicial processes and high-quality and timely judgments, while respecting the needs of separating families.

Purpose

The purpose of the Court, as Australia’s superior court in family law, is to:

  • determine cases with the most complex law, facts and parties
  • cover specialised areas in family law, and
  • provide national coverage as the appellate court in family law matters.

The core services of the Court are those that:

  • are prescribed by legislation
  • enable and support judges to determine cases, and
  • meet duty of care requirements.

Vision

The Court’s vision provides for:

  • putting children and families first in the design and delivery of services
  • furthering functional family relationships after separation
  • ensuring independence and impartiality in the judicial process
  • having staff who are valued for providing quality service for families
  • providing quality child dispute services for families, and
  • being at the forefront of the development of services.

Jurisdiction

The Family Court of Australia is a superior court of record and deals with more complex matters. These may include, for example:

  • Parenting cases including those that involve a child welfare agency and/or allegations of sexual abuse or serious physical abuse of a child (Magellan cases); family violence and/or mental health issues with other complexities; multiple parties; complex cases where orders sought would have the effect of preventing a parent from communicating with or spending time with a child; multiple expert witnesses; complex questions of law and/or special jurisdictional issues; international child abduction under the Hague Convention; special medical procedures; and/or international relocation.
  • Financial cases that involve multiple parties, valuation of complex interests in trust or corporate structures, including minority interests, multiple expert witnesses, complex questions of law and/or jurisdictional issues (including accrued jurisdiction) or complex issues concerning superannuation (such as complex valuations of defined benefit superannuation schemes).

The Court also has original jurisdiction under certain Commonwealth Acts, including the:

  • Marriage Act 1961
  • Child Support (Registration and Collection) Act 1988
  • Child Support (Assessment) Act 1989
  • Bankruptcy Act 1966.

Programs of work

To ensure the Court fulfils its stated purpose, it has four programs of work:

  • maintaining an environment that enables judicial officers to make determinations
  • provision of effective and efficient registry services
  • corporate management of resources, and
  • effective information and communication technologies.

The balance of family law work has evolved significantly over some years, with most family law applications now filed in the Federal Circuit Court. This has enabled the Family Court to become a smaller, more specialised court that generally deals with appeals and the most complex range of family law cases. The complexity of the cases that are now before the Family Court inevitably leads to lengthier trials and means matters are less likely to settle.

Portfolio Budget Statements outcome and program

The Court’s outcome and program framework sets out its commitments to the Government. Each year, details of the framework are outlined in the Portfolio Budget Statements, along with relevant performance information. Government outcomes are the intended results, impacts or consequences of actions by the Government on the Australian community. Agencies deliver programs that are government actions taken to deliver the stated outcomes. Agencies are required to identify the programs that contribute to government outcomes over the Budget and forward years.

Outcome

The Family Court’s outcome is described below.

As Australia’s specialist superior family court, determine cases with complex law and facts, and provide national coverage as the appellate court in family law matters.

Program

The Court has a single program under which all services are provided:

Provision of a Family Court.

The Family Court’s program objective is to support Australian families involved in complex family disputes by deciding matters according to the law, promptly, courteously and effectively. This involves:

  • providing decisions in complex family disputes for separating Australian couples and families through the determination of matters, and
  • providing national coverage as the appellate court in family law matters.

Deliverables and key performance indicators

The Family Court’s seven deliverables and eight key performance indicators encompass core service standards for judicial services and client services (that is, the family law registries, where people attend in person, and the National Enquiry Centre, the first point of contact for telephone and email enquiries).

Following is a summary of the deliverables and KPIs. Detailed reporting, including specifics of the Court’s effectiveness in achieving its planned outcomes in 2012–13—in other words, how far it has progressed towards the achievement of these stated outcomes—is in Part 3 (see Table 3.1 for a summary of performance for judicial services and Table 3.3 for a summary for client services’ performance).

Judicial services KPIs

Judicial services deliverables

Goal (total number for 2012–13)

Final order finalisations

3400

Interim order finalisations

3800

Consent order finalisations

10,700

Other finalisations

300

 

Registries and NEC deliverables

Goal (total number for 2012–13)

Counter enquiries (registries)

151,000

Telephone enquiries served (NEC)

287,600

Email enquiries (NEC)

50,300

Key performance indicators

Judicial services deliverables

Target

Clearance rate (final orders)

100 per cent

Cases pending conclusion that are less than 12 months old

75 per cent

Reserved judgments are waiting less than three months after the conclusion of the trial

75 per cent

Number of complaints as a percentage of applications received

1 per cent across judicial and client services

 

Registries and NEC KPIs

Goal (total number for year)

Counter enquiries served within 20 minutes (registries)

75 per cent

Applications lodged processed within two working days (registries)

75 per cent

Telephone enquiries answered within 90 seconds (NEC)

80 per cent

Email enquiries responded to within two working days (NEC)

80 per cent

Number of complaints as a percentage of applications received

1 per cent across judicial and clients services

Strategic initiatives in the Portfolio Budget Statements

The Court’s 2012–13 Portfolio Budget Statements identified a number of specific initiatives that the Court would be progressing. Each of these is reported here.

Highlights

In 2012–13, the Court had six Portfolio Budget Statement strategic initiatives. Highlights include:

  • revised Family Violence Best Practice Principles
  • delivering service improvements through adoption of the International Framework for Court Excellence
  • growing eFiling usage, including a 44 per cent in registered users of the Commonwealth Courts Portal and also a 44 per cent increase in eFiled documented in the courts
  • quarterly meetings between the Federal Court, Family Court and Federal Circuit to consider improved efficiency and effectiveness of shared resources across the three courts
  • changes to the managing and funding of Commonwealth Law Courts buildings
  • in response to budgetary pressures, looking at more options for reforms, including further e-services reforms.

Revised best practice principles for dealing with family violence

The best practice principles for dealing with family violence were first developed as part of the Family Court’s Family Violence Strategy in March 2009. The principles were initially developed by the Family Court after significant changes were made to the Family Law Act in 2006. In addition, major amendments to the Act were introduced in 2012, specifically related to addressing issues of family violence.

The best practice principles are applicable in all cases involving family violence or child abuse or the risk of family violence or child abuse in family law proceedings before the courts. Whilst they were developed to provide judicial officers with practical guidance in dealing with matters where family violence is alleged, the courts believe that these principles are a valuable tool for all individuals and agencies involved in family law cases, including legal practitioners and self-represented litigants.

The third edition of the best practice principles was launched at the family law conference in Hobart in October 2012 by the then Attorney-General, the Honourable Nicola Roxon MP. At the launch, Chief Justice Diana Bryant AO said there had been significant progress over recent years in enhancing the communication between those who have a role in family law and in the protection of children.

The best practice principles recognise:

  • the harmful effects of family violence and abuse on victims
  • the place accorded to the issue of family violence in the Family Law Act, and
  • the principles guiding the Court’s Magellan case management system for the disposition of cases involving allegations of sexual abuse or serious physical abuse of children.

The principles will guide and inform the Court in developing a new Family Violence Strategy (2013–16), which will continue to provide a framework through which the Family Court will consider its responses and develop its action areas in response to family violence.

The Family Violence Best Practice Principles is available on the Family Law Courts website at www.familylawcourts.gov.au

International Framework for Court Excellence

During 2012–13, the Family Court progressed its adoption of the International Framework for Court Excellence as a way of delivering improvements to the operation of the Court, including judicial and registry services. In particular, during 2012–13 the Court undertook a number of initiatives aligned to seven central elements of the framework as follows.

Court management and leadership

Given the Court’s workforce demographic and the likelihood of retirements within the next five years, increased attention was given to succession planning and ensuring that the Court has capacity for the future including at court administration leadership levels. As well, the Court continued a CEO initiative targeted at younger employees ensuring that the Court benefits from the ideas of the next generation and that they are engaged with the future of the Court (see Initiatives—Young Employees Advisory Group—later in this Part of the annual report).

Court policies and planning

As Government policy became clear about the future structure of federal courts, the Chief Justice determined that fresh strategic foundations must be made for a future plan to underpin the Court’s unique place in the Commonwealth justice system. Accordingly, a committee of five justices was formed to advise on such matters. The Committee, chaired by Justice Peter Murphy, will report to Chief Justice in 2013–14 on areas in which the Court performs strongly and areas which may require change. This work will be informed by the opinions of the court judiciary and the administration and also feedback from court users such as barristers and lawyers.

Human, material and financial resource management

Corporate services are a fundamental foundation to the operation of the Court. A focus this financial year was work with Government about a sustainable budget for the future. This work contributed to the Court being awarded budget supplementation in 2012–13, pending a further review in 2013–14 of all federal courts financial and operational arrangements.

Court proceedings

The Court has established an innovative approach to reviewing the performance of the Court and the workload of the judiciary. Operational statistical snapshots have now become the cornerstone of quarterly reviews of the work of the judiciary, of registrars, family consultants and client services. They assist the Court in promoting discussion about improvements to performance, more consistent approaches across the country and case management planning.

Client needs and satisfaction

Following a court user satisfaction survey of more than 1300 respondents including litigants and lawyers, conducted in June and July 2011, the Court determined areas for improvement. The survey results were encouraging with 86 per cent of those surveyed saying that they were satisfied with their visit to court. Identified areas for improvement included form design, the website, and better information to ensure more accurate expectations ahead of court hearings including, for example, the time a court hearing might take. This initiative, directly related to client needs and satisfaction, will now become a regular feature of the Court’s assessment and improvement program.

Affordable and accessible court services

The Court continued to ensure that all registries are accessible to those with disabilities. All property refurbishments were completed taking into account disability access regulations. The Court continued to provide interpreters for those parties where language was identified as a barrier to participation in court events and also examined opportunities for best practice in support of interpreters in courtrooms.

An Australian Government fee review resulted in new fees, and in some cases increased fees, for certain filings in the Family Court as part of the requirement to recover a greater percentage of the costs associated with the jurisdiction. The reforms included fee waiver arrangements for those who may have evidence of financial hardship.

Public trust and confidence

The Court has established, through its surveys of court users, that there is high level of trust and confidence in the Court’s processes, staff and procedures. To ensure that the Court continues to have the benefit of court user feedback in order that it can make responsive adjustments to ensure needs are met, the court user satisfaction survey will be repeated in 2013–14 and feedback will be relied on to continually improve the Court’s administration and case management.

The Court also promotes trust and confidence through its consultative culture and engagement with stakeholders within Australia and internationally. These initiatives are detailed in this annual report. The Court acknowledges the importance of engagement in a variety of forms and in particular has responded to the evolution of new media. In this regard, the Court has been a leader in initiating Twitter this financial year. The Chief Justice and Deputy Chief Justice also regularly engaged with traditional media to provide observation and reflection upon the complex issues affecting this jurisdiction.

The essential principle promoted by the Court in all these initiatives is transparency so that public trust and confidence is continually enhanced.

Commonwealth Courts Portal

The Commonwealth Courts Portal (www.comcourts.gov.au), launched in July 2007, is a continuing initiative of the Family Court, the Federal Court and the Federal Circuit Court. The portal provides free web-based access to information about cases that are before these courts.

After registering, lawyers and parties can keep track of their cases, identify documents that have been filed and view outcomes, orders made and future court dates. Users log on using a single user ID and access multiple jurisdictions from a single central web-based system.

A popular function is the ability for a user to elect to be notified of any recent activity on their files. To date more than 80,000 such notifications have been sent. During 2012–13, the eCourt Forum was implemented, allowing interaction between the courts and clients to enable procedural matters to be heard without having to physically attend court.

eFiling functions continue to be expanded with eFiling of applications and responses in a case implemented during the year. The development of eFiling of application for consent orders will be completed in 2013–14. In addition, progress continued to be made with the government-mandated timeline to attain compliance with version 2.0 Level ‘AA’ of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines by December 2014.

The following statistics highlight the significant growth in the number of portal users as at 30 June 2013:

  • more than 4000 firms now registered (a 33 per cent increase)
  • lawyer registrations have increased to over 8000 (a 33 per cent increase)
  • total registered users exceed 118,000 (a 44 per cent increase), and
  • more than 1900 distinct users had in total more than 71,000 logins during May 2013, demonstrating the high proportion of return visitors.

Table 2.1 Registered users of the Commonwealth Courts Portal, 2009–10 to 2012–13

 

30 June 2010

30 June 2011

30 June 2012

30 June 2013

Number of law firms registered

1279

2466

3280

4134

Number of lawyers registered

2827

5026

6746

8370

Total registered users

24,073

57,602

85,332

118,108

Table 2.2 Documents eFiled in the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court, 2009–10 to 2012–13

 

2009–10

2010–11

2011–12

2012–13

Adelaide

1679

2353

4912

7121

Albury

18

166

501

802

Alice Springs

1

19

109

136

Brisbane

9077

18,936

27,379

35,666

Cairns

64

209

1076

1350

Canberra

643

1321

2004

2914

Coffs Harbour

114

286

863

1000

Dandenong

832

2217

5331

7594

Darwin

129

212

359

519

Dubbo

9

125

363

660

Hobart

85

210

562

700

Launceston

311

575

734

876

Lismore

174

418

1109

1672

Melbourne

4904

10,983

19,329

31,650

Newcastle

1046

2822

4724

6700

Parramatta

2029

5016

7736

11,101

Rockhampton

374

444

746

1311

Sydney

2870

6207

10,466

15,372

Townsville

634

1568

2115

2787

Wollongong

102

430

1444

2352

Total

25,095

54,517

91,862

132,283

In Western Australia there were 5460 documents eFiled during 2012–13.

Heads of jurisdiction cooperation

Heads of jurisdiction meetings

Under the umbrella of fostering greater cooperation, the heads of jurisdiction (the Chief Justice of the Federal Court of Australia, the Chief Justice of the Family Court and the Chief Judge of the Federal Circuit Court) meet quarterly to discuss initiatives regarding improved efficiency and effectiveness of shared resources across the three courts. The primary aim of the meetings is to improve the overall effectiveness and efficiency of the scarce resources of the courts. More information on heads of jurisdiction is provided in Part 6 (collaborative committees).

The Family Law Courts Advisory Group

The Chief Justice of the Family Court and the Chief Judge of the Federal Circuit Court, along with two other judicial officers, the Chief Executive and an Attorney-General’s Department representative meet quarterly to discuss the shared resources between the courts in the area of family law.

Managing and funding Commonwealth Law Courts buildings

From 1 July 2012, there was a change to the arrangements for funding and managing Commonwealth Law Courts (CLC) buildings. Funding related to the non-office areas (e.g. courtrooms, chambers and public waiting areas) was transferred from the tenants to allow the building owner, the Department of Finance and Deregulation, to take on greater responsibility for managing these areas, which comprise approximately 85 per cent of the CLC buildings. During 2012–13, the Family Court and other tenants worked closely with the Department to implement the new arrangements and work will continue on this in 2013–14. The courts also worked closely with the Attorney-General’s Department to develop a strategic plan for the ongoing occupancy of the CLC buildings. That work was ongoing at 30 June 2013.

Budgetary pressures

Over recent years, the Family Court has undertaken significant initiatives to reduce costs and generate efficiencies. Nevertheless, the Court is still facing financial pressures.

Throughout 2012–13, the Government continued to work with the Court to address these pressures. This included the Court comprehensively examining options available to transform its operations, including:

  • working more closely with other federal courts as part of the recommendations from the Skehill Review
  • further developing and implementing a range of e-services reforms
  • continuing to pursue options for sharing or sub-leasing buildings with states and territories, with the aim of reducing property costs while maintaining presence and service levels in regional locations, and
  • a wide-ranging consideration to identify any other legislative and practical options to create efficiency and/or reduce costs, some of which have already been identified.

Outlook for 2013–14

In 2013–14, the following may have an impact on the Court and its delivery of services:

  • positioning the courts to address ongoing budgetary pressures, particularly from 2014–15 onwards
  • implementation of the recommendations contained in the Skehill report
  • revised best practice principles for dealing with family violence, and
  • ongoing work concerning the adoption of the International Framework for Court Excellence.

International cooperation

Australia Indonesia Partnership for Justice

Indonesian and Australian courts have a long history of working together to strengthen justice in Indonesia. Funded by the Australian Government through AusAID since 2008, the partnership, under a court-to-court Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Family Court and the Supreme Court of Indonesia, has enabled courts in both countries to share experiences regarding access to justice, enhance judicial capacity and improve court business processes. The cooperation and dialogue provides opportunities for robust discussion between courts in Indonesia and Australia, facilitating unique learning opportunities for courts in both countries and assisting in the development of strategic solutions to issues facing the courts.

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Indonesia, the Hon Dr M. Hatta Ali, SH, MH, stated at the signing of the MOU in 2012:

‘Despite differences (language, system of law, and political relations) the courts continue to communicate and work productively and generate many important outcomes. The Chief Justice considers that the strategic cooperation between the three courts needs to be further strengthened based on (the two countries’) mutual interest and respect.’

Family Court of Australia Chief Justice Diana Bryant added:

‘The Family Court of Australia is pleased to continue its professional association with the Indonesian courts. We have achieved amazing results by working together in areas as diverse as case management, court administration, information technology, client services, supporting marginalised and vulnerable litigants as well as access to justice for the poor. Together we have witnessed incredible change in improving access to justice in a relatively short period of time. I am particularly pleased with the international recognition that some of our programs have received.’

The areas of cooperation between the Indonesian and Australian courts have been developed in line with the Indonesian Court’s Blueprint for Reform 2010–2035, which is in accordance with the Court Excellence Framework. The Blueprint addresses reform initiatives at the level of the Indonesian Supreme Court and the jurisdictions that it supervises (the General Courts, Religious Courts, Administrative Courts and Military Courts).

In 2012–13, the following key areas of cooperation were progressed:

  • Affordable and accessible court services (mediation)—in 2012, the Supreme Court of Indonesia and the Family Court worked on improving court services and proceedings in Indonesia through capacity building of mediation techniques. The focus of the cooperation was on promoting a mediation process in family law cases that is effective, efficient, sensitive to court user needs (especially women, children and persons with disabilities) and encourages timely decision making in relation to family law cases, child custody and division of assets. 
    In 2013–14, the two courts will be working together to refine and develop a more tailored mediation procedure for family matters, including policy development, capacity building and monitoring and evaluation.
  • Affordable and accessible court services (fee waivers, circuit courts and duty station lawyers)—the Family Court and the Supreme Court of Indonesia have worked together to strengthen the delivery of affordable and accessible court services in Indonesia for a number of years. This has included producing a baseline survey in the field of family law and birth certificates conducted in the General and Religious Courts (2007–2009). This measured client satisfaction with the family court services provided and the ability of women living under the Indonesian poverty line to access the courts for their family law matters. 
    In 2013–14, the cooperation will continue to focus on enhancing and broadening access to the courts in family matters (such marriage, divorce and birth certificates) for women, the poor, those living in remote areas and other marginalised groups. This will include continuing to strengthen delivery of services to the justice seeker through court fee waivers, circuit court hearings and legal aid posts in courts, as well as to socialise the existence and the benefits of these services.
  • Affordable and accessible justice in family law services (realising rights)—the Family Court and the Supreme Court of Indonesia are committed to broadening public understanding of the importance of accessible and affordable family law services for all Indonesian citizens. Previous research and knowledge products have informed court policy and budget decisions contributing to significant increases in the number of women, the poor and those living in remote areas accessing the Religious Courts. These reports have been read within Indonesia and internationally and presented as best practice in the2011 Report of UN Women: In Pursuit of Justice and the 2012 World Development Report: Gender Equality and Development. In 2012–15, the Family Court will work with the Supreme Court on the use of international practices to document such initiatives as well as facilitate the publication and dissemination of such through its international networks. 
    During 2012–13, the Family Court worked with the Supreme Court of Indonesia on documenting the improved access to the Indonesian courts over the last three years and the benefits to Indonesian citizens of legal birth, marriage and divorce certificates for accessing government services and poverty alleviation programs.

Zimbabwe

In 2012, the Family Court in conjunction with the College of Law NSW, under an Australian Leadership Award (ALA) program funded by AusAID, organised and hosted a two week capacity-building program for a delegation of family law stakeholders from Zimbabwe. Representatives included Fellows from the: High Court of Zimbabwe; Judicial Service Commission (Supreme Court and Magistrates Courts); Ministry of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development; Ministry of Justice and Legal Affairs; University of Zimbabwe, Southern and Eastern African Regional Centre Women’s Law; Justice For Children Trust; Zimbabwe Women Lawyers; Women and Law in Southern Africa Research and Education Trust; Progression and HIV and AIDS Management and Support Organisation; Ministry of Labour and Social Services; UNICEF and the Council of Chiefs.

The ALA program aimed to strengthen access to the family law courts for disadvantaged groups by identifying ways in which to strengthen the delivery of family law services to women, children and persons with a disability. The program identified a process for establishing a baseline set of data on the delivery of family law services in Zimbabwe and the barriers faced by disadvantaged groups in accessing family law courts. Through discussions with the Family Court, Legal Aid Victoria and other relevant Australian partner organisations, the Fellows developed proposed solutions and approaches to overcome the identified access to justice barriers and to strengthen the delivery of family law services to the above disadvantages groups. These approaches were then incorporated in the Return To Work Plans for ALA fellows.

Access to justice in family law in the Pacific workshop

With support from AusAID, with an International Seminar Support Scheme (ISSS) grant, the Family Court hosted a two-day workshop in the Sydney registry in March 2013.

The goal of the meeting, held at the conclusion of the World Congress on Family Law and Children Rights, was to facilitate discussions among Pacific judicial leaders on the role of the family law courts in the Pacific for ensuring better access for women, children and other disadvantaged groups to resolve their family law and family violence cases. The workshop included the role and contributions that can be made by civil society partners, legal aid lawyers, the judiciary and relevant government agencies to increase opportunity for access to justice for women, children and other disadvantaged groups. The meeting involved judicial leaders from the three Pacific sub-regions: Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia.

Pacific regional consultation

The Pacific regional consultation for judges on human rights and contemporary pacific issues, organised and facilitated by the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC), was held in Brisbane in June 2013. Justice Michael Kent, the Queensland Case Management Judge, hosted and facilitated discussions among the Pacific judicial leaders on the role of the courts, particularly family law courts, toward ensuring better access to the courts for women, children and other disadvantaged groups in the area of family law and family violence cases.

The delegation consisted of representatives from the Cook Islands, Fiji, the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Samoa, Tonga and Tuvalu.

Bhutan

With assistance from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs, the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court hosted a one-week judicial delegation from Bhutan during March 2013. The visit included Canberra and Sydney with site visits to the Family Court, the Federal Circuit Court, the Federal Court, the High Court of Australia, the Judicial College of Australia, the Supreme Court and the District Court of NSW and the University of Sydney.

The objective of the visit was to establish institutional linkages and peer-to-peer exchanges, to expose Bhutanese justices and judges to the judicial and administrative systems underpinning the rule of law in Australia and also to the work practices of the various courts within Australia.

International visitors

In addition to the above, the Court’s work continued to be recognised internationally. Official visitors also attended from Cambodia, China, Japan and Malaysia, looking at different aspects of the Court’s work.

Appendix 11 contains more information about each of the delegations.

Court service locations

There are 19 family law registries across Australia (except in Western Australia). Registries provide services to the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court. These services include lodgement of documents, providing procedural advice and responding to enquiries, mail handling, and listing of cases. The Court also conducts circuits to regional areas. For details on circuit listings, go to the Court lists section on the Family Court of Australia website at www.familycourt.gov.au.

Table 2.3 Family Court of Australia service locations

Australian Capital Territory Canberra (J, R, FC, CS)
New South Wales Albury (CS, RC), Armidale (RC, FamC), Coffs Harbour (JC, RC), Dubbo (CS, JC, RC, FC), Lismore (CS, JC, RC), Newcastle (J, R, FC, CS), Orange (JC), Parramatta (J, R, FC, CS), Port Macquarie (RC), Sydney (J, R, FC, CS), Tamworth (RC), Wollongong (R, CS)
Northern Territory Alice Springs (CS), Darwin (CS, JC, RC, FC)
Queensland Brisbane (J, R, FC, CS), Cairns (R, FC, CS, JC), Mackay (JC, RC, FamC), Rockhampton (CS, JC, RC, FamC), Townsville (J, R, FC, CS),
South Australia Adelaide (J, R, FC, CS)
Tasmania Devonport (RC), Hobart (J, R, FC, CS), Launceston (CS, FC, JC, RC, FC),
Victoria Ballarat (RC), Bendigo (RC), Dandenong (R, FC, CS), Geelong (RC), Hamilton (RC), Melbourne (J, R, FC, CS), Mildura (RC), Morwell (RC), Shepparton (RC), Warrnambool (RC)

 

LEGEND

J – Judge
R – Registrar
FC – Family Consultant
CS – Client Services

JC – Judicial Circuit
RC – Registrar Circuit
FamC – Family Consultant Circuit

Map of Family Court Registry and Circuit locations around Australia

Initiatives of the Family Court

Client service highlights

  • Family Violence Best Practice Principles updated.
  • Recommendations on improvements specifically required for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients.
  • Better queuing systems in the five busiest registries.
  • A wide range of community relationship and engagement initiatives at the local registry level.
  • All family report writers, whether on staff or not, now must have the same professional qualifications and prior experience of working with families and children.

Reports and publications

Family Violence Best Practice Principles – third edition

The third edition of the Family Violence Best Practice Principles was launched at the family law conference in Hobart in October 2012 by the then Attorney-General, the Honourable Nicola Roxon MP. At the launch, Chief Justice Diana Bryant AO said there had been significant progress over recent years in enhancing the communication between those who have a role in family law and in the protection of children. The best practice principles are applicable in all cases involving family violence or child abuse or the risk of family violence or child abuse in family law proceedings before the courts.

See the Portfolio Budget Statements Strategic Initiatives earlier in this part for more detail.

Statement of Strategic Intent

In July 2012, the courts’ administration released a statement of strategic intent, outlining the challenges, directions and priorities of the courts’ administration for 2012–13. The Statement built on the work already achieved after the merger of the separate administrations of the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court in 2009.

In the document foreword, the Chief Executive Officer, Richard Foster, noted that the courts’ administration operates in an environment of change, with increasing expectations from court users. ‘We have a critical role in shaping and defining service delivery and we pride ourselves on delivering timely, high quality, cost effective support to the Family Court of Australia and Federal Circuit Court of Australia.’

Mr Foster acknowledged that there were significant challenges, including ongoing financial pressures, the Government’s desire for closer sharing of corporate resources and the continued pressure on staff to do more with less.

The Statement noted that clients have told the courts that they want:

  • ease and simplicity in procedure, policy and system
  • information that is understandable and accessible
  • timeliness
  • assistance
  • respect for privacy, and
  • a safe environment.

Priority actions for 2012–13 included:

  • implementing ongoing savings measures in support of the courts’ agreed budget position, including possible restructure of the service model and/or funding arrangements
  • continued development of a unified corporate service to support the courts
  • exploration of any opportunities to share or restructure corporate services with the Federal Court
  • completion, integration and adoption of operational data for the judiciary, registrars, family consultants and client services to inform case management planning in accordance with the Court Excellence Framework (see Initiatives for more about the Framework)
  • advancing ‘transformational’ opportunities through the development of an ‘electronic court file’ including the development of an electronic divorce file and process
  • implementing agreed recommendations resulting from the Dandenong Project, a pilot program at the Dandenong registry in 2010–11 that sought to identify and pilot innovative ways to provide better access to justice for family law clients, and any other relevant evaluations and pilots to advance higher quality approaches in family law parenting cases
  • implementing changes to process, practice and procedure arising from the family violence amendments
  • advancing and integrating the seven key areas in the Court Excellence Framework
  • considering and implementing change in response to the 2011 family law user satisfaction survey so that the courts are continually reviewing and improving our services for court user value
  • working with the Federal Court to ensure appropriate services and facilities are available for general federal law matters
  • reviewing the application of the Staff Development Fund to ensure it is effectively deployed to key learning and development opportunities for staff, and
  • continuing to explore accommodation options for Federal Circuit Court judges in the Sydney central business district.

At 30 June 2013, significant progress had been made on the majority of the above priorities and work was ongoing. That ongoing work included, for example, a targeted and tailored training program to better equip staff to meet the challenges. Other initiatives, such as the Court Excellence Framework, are reported elsewhere in this report. Also at 30 June 2013, the Strategic Intent document was being updated to reflect the implementation of the new joint agency. From 1 July 2013, the administration of the courts will be formed into one body known as the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court.

Indigenous Australians access to and usage of the Family Law Courts

A study of Indigenous Australians access to and use of the Family Law Courts was completed in 2012–13. The study, commenced in 2010, looked at issues associated with access to justice and recommended steps towards improved service delivery in the Family Law Courts. It compared the experiences and perceptions of Indigenous Australians, who had recently litigated in the Family Law Courts, with those of a representative sample of non-Indigenous Australians.

The study was initiated by the Indigenous Working Group, chaired by Justice Robert Benjamin. Stephen Ralph, an independent Aboriginal consultant with extensive experience working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families in the area of family law, undertook the study, seeking the views and experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families who had recently been involved in family law proceedings.

The major findings of the review were reported in last year’s annual report. In addition to those findings, which can be viewed in the final report, available on the Family Law Courts website at www.familylawcourts.gov.au, six recommendations were made:

Recommendation 1: Family dispute resolution services

It is recommended that an evaluation be undertaken of the accessibility of family dispute resolution services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, with a focus on the effectiveness and appropriateness of services as they are currently delivered to Indigenous families.

Recommendation 2: Information systems and data collection

It is recommended:

2.1 That the courts’ Casetrack system be enhanced to allow for the recording of Indigenous status as ‘unknown’ and that it be mandatory for the field of Indigenous status to be completed in entering data into Casetrack.

2.2 That all family consultants and registrars be directed to inquire into the Indigenous status of all clients on the first occasion of contact when Indigenous status is marked ‘unknown’ in Casetrack, and that they then be responsible for amending the Casetrack record accordingly.

2.3 That the Family Law Courts consider conducting court user surveys every two years, and that the survey be enhanced to promote and facilitate follow-up with Indigenous clients as part of an ongoing process of continuous improvement directed to facilitating.

Recommendation 3: A coordinated registry-based team approach to managing and determining Indigenous cases

It is recommended that the courts adopt a coordinated, registry-based team approach to managing and determining Indigenous cases using judges, registrars, family consultants and client service officers who through ongoing professional development are encouraged and supported in developing expertise in working with Indigenous families.

Recommendation 4: Judicial education and training

It is recommended that a limited number of judicial officers be nominated in each registry to undertake Indigenous cultural competency training with the expectation that these officers will be routinely allocated Indigenous cases in the future.

Recommendation 5: Training and professional development of family consultants

It is recommended that a limited number of family consultants be nominated in each registry to undertake Indigenous cultural competency training with the expectation that these consultants will be routinely allocated Indigenous cases in the future.

Recommendation 6: The development and establishment of court support for Indigenous families

It is recommended that the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department investigate through consultation with all relevant stakeholders the establishment and funding of a viable and sustainable program of court support for Indigenous families involved in family law litigation.

Client services

New queuing system

In October 2012 a ticket-based queuing system was installed at the Parramatta, Dandenong, Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney registries, replacing the previous queuing system. When clients enter these registries, they are greeted with a touch screen kiosk giving them a set of options from which to choose. Once the client is issued with a ticket, the queue management system allows specialists in different areas to manage certain enquiries, facilitating shorter wait times and more efficient service.

Whilst feedback from clients has not been formally sought, there has been positive comment about the ability to ticket the subpoena and file view area at the Melbourne registry. This has resulted in a more orderly flow of clients. From a staff perspective, the new system is beneficial in various ways. The training and helpdesk support have been commented upon favourably. Overall, the new system is seen to have benefited not only staff but also clients and other court users by way of its improved functionality and reliability. Now waiting clients can see for themselves how long they might need to wait and staff can re-allocate client services staff to areas of higher demand at any given time.

Sydney Family Law Settlement Service

The Sydney Family Law Settlement Service pilot commenced in May 2012 and concluded in December 2012. It was a joint initiative of the Law Society of New South Wales, the New South Wales Bar Association, the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court.

The pilot aimed to settle as many family law property matters as possible without a court hearing (trial), thus avoiding the cost and time of a fully defended hearing and reducing the number of cases awaiting final hearing in the courts. The Law Society facilitated the coordination and administration of the service. Practitioners who were experienced in mediating in family law matters and who were on the Law Society’s and NSW Bar Association’s mediation panels were engaged to conduct the mediations.

A total of 148 Sydney and Wollongong property matters were selected as suitable to participate in the service, being matters for which a conciliation conference had been held but excluding cases, for example, with allegations of family violence. Parties were invited to voluntarily agree to attend the service and, where consent was not given by both parties, a judicial officer considered whether any orders should be made that the parties attend the service.

At 30 June 2013, evaluation of the pilot was continuing, however the known results indicate it was well received and has potential for the future. Discussions were underway about refinements that might be made to the model, should it be continued in the future.

Of the initial 148 matters, 89 were subsequently referred to the service for mediation. Thirty-five matters were deemed not suitable following representations by the parties and further examination and the remainder either settled or discontinued prior to referral to the service or were privately mediated.

Of the 89 matters referred to the service, 26 matters (29 per cent) settled at the mediation through the service and 15 (17 per cent) settled prior to the mediation. Thus, a total of 41 matters (46 per cent) of the matters referred to mediation settled. Less than half of the matters (39 of the 89 or 44 per cent) referred to the service progressed through to a court hearing and many of those were of reduced length due to partial settlement or narrowing of issues at the mediation. At 30 June 2013, the other nine of those 89 were still in some form of action, either mediation was ongoing or other reporting back was yet to happen or the status of their settlement was yet to be reported.

Given the success of this initiative, it is likely that the service will continue in the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court in Sydney.

Community relationships and consultation

The 19 registries and another 33 circuit locations are the face of the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court—the place where people have in-person contact with the courts. They directly complement the work of the National Enquiry Centre as the first point of contact for telephone and email calls.

The impressions and experiences that people have with these interactions is of great importance to the courts and is an area for continuous improvement. Part of that continuous improvement is a program of activities at all registries that, varyingly, encompass what might be broadly termed community relationship building, consultation, information giving and receiving, education (both by the courts and of the courts by other courts, organisations and individuals) and other in-person interactions. At the core of these activities is the importance that the courts place on our work being a part of the much broader system of support for families and children: that to be most effective in service delivery, the courts need to work closely with other providers, with organisations representing the interests of clients, and others.

Much of this work is best done at the local level. These interactions with each registry’s local communities—with community-based organisations concerned with family support and the family law system, community forums, law societies, family law pathway networks, volunteer networks, other government agencies, including many at the State level—are something that the Court has been reporting in some detail in recent years in an appendix to the annual report. What the reporting shows is that different registries take different approaches, reflecting local needs and opportunities, and capacity for action.

The breadth of the activities, many with innovative outcomes that cross the divides of Commonwealth and State legislative frameworks and what might be other forms of barriers, are such that some are highlighted here:

  • The Victorian Department of Human Services now has senior child protection practitioners co-located in the Melbourne and Dandenong registries. This initiative aims to help address long-standing concerns about what has sometimes been a disconnect between the roles of the courts and of the state services for child protection. The aim of the initiative is to better meet the needs and interests of children who are at risk by enabling effective collaboration and sharing of information between the Department, the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court.
  • In South Australia, the courts and Families SA have a protocol and local practices about the exchange of information between Families SA and the Family Law Courts. The aim is a more holistic approach to dealing with children’s matters; also judicial forums to facilitate discussion of matters relating to Magellan, family violence and child abuse, child development and other general issues with a family law and child protection interface.
  • In Queensland, the benefits of eFiling were promoted strongly again and by 30 June 2013, Queensland had 35,666 documents eFiled, the most of all registries. The Melbourne registry had the most significant increase in documents eFiled—31,650 in 2012–13 compared to 19,329 the previous year. Similarly other registries had strong growth, although total numbers are lesser. The growth comes out of concerted efforts by local staff to promote the benefits of eFiling to the legal profession.
  • In Sydney, as with other registries, presentations and other forms of interaction with diverse groups were a regular activity. For example:
    • family consultants attended Saturday ‘road shows’ for information and consultation with Aboriginal communities in various areas, with more planned in 2013–14.
    • ‘Dads in Distress’ representatives attended a Child Dispute Services team meeting for information sharing.
    • A local Rabbi provided information about Jewish marriage and divorce, with the registry now considering meeting with representatives of other cultural/religious backgrounds.
    • The Family Law Early Intervention Unit (EIU) is a state-wide specialist service of Legal Aid NSW, funded under the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistances Services. The EIU provides:
      • outreach advice and assistance to people with family law problems in a range of locations, neighbourhood centres and Aboriginal Legal Services in suburban and regional and rural NSW
      • lawyer assisted dispute resolution including the Court Ordered Mediation Pilot, and
      • duty lawyer services in Parramatta registry (commenced 27 March 2011), Sydney registry (commenced 1 July 2011) and Newcastle registry (commenced 1 July 2011), with the aim of increasing access to earlier, expert legal assistance for self-represented individuals seeking legal help. The service provides an increased number of available hours, more staff and a broader remit, which has enabled a substantial increase in the volume of duty matters dealt with at family law registries.

Appendix 9 includes more detail.

Upgraded quality assurance for non-staff family consultants

In addition to 80 court-employed family consultants providing services to Family Law Courts’ clients, the Court appoints non-staff family consultants (known as Regulation 7 family consultants) to prepare family reports when a court-employed consultant is not available. At any one time the Court may have as many as 151 Regulation 7 family consultants available to provide family reports, as required.

A major area of focus during 2012–13 was on quality assurance associated with the work of the Regulation 7 family consultants. The Court has upgraded the minimum professional requirements for non-staff family consultants and has also significantly increased the requirements and opportunities for support, professional development and feedback for the Regulation 7 family consultants.

The work is a direct result of feedback received in 2011 in a review of the Family Law Child Dispute Services management structure. At that time, a number of submissions included opinions about quality assurance models within the courts, including the quality of reports made by Regulation 7 family consultants. That review found that there needed to be a more consistent approach applied across the courts.

In early 2012, the Principal Child Dispute Services established a working group to advise and make recommendations on future minimum requirements that would support a quality assurance framework for Regulation 7-appointed family consultants. In December 2012, a discussion paper proposed various recommendations to achieve this, which was accepted by the courts. The intent is that the professional standards required of court-employed family consultants apply to anyone who is appointed as a Regulation 7 family consultant.

All but one of the recommendations had been implemented at 30 June 2013. The remaining one, for mandatory induction prior to any reports being allocated, was being actioned. It required the review of the four modules of induction and that work was well progressed, with it expected that this final recommendation would be fully implemented by mid-July 2013.

The recommendations, in summary, require Regulation 7-recruited family consultants to have the same professional psychology or social work qualifications as court-employed family consultants (irrespective of rural or metropolitan location) and a minimum of five years post-graduate experience, working with families and children. Appointments will be for three years, with reappointment to be an automatic and administrative process.

In addition, the following recommendations are now included in the courts’ professional directions on Appointment and Use of Regulation 7 Family Consultants, requiring that Regulation 7 family consultants:

  • complete induction before any family reports are allocated and for new appointees without prior court-based experience, a number of their first written family reports will be reviewed by the Senior Family Consultant. Further allocations will depend on the quality of the reports and the willingness of the Regulation 7 family consultant to respond to feedback. There may be scope for online peer discussion forums for newly appointed Regulation 7 family consultants
  • ensure the currency of their professional knowledge and access to appropriate supervision; also comply with the requirements of professional registration and continuing professional development
  • must be informed about training opportunities (within the courts and externally provided) and available peer support networks, and have access to various online tools and information from the courts
  • may receive formal feedback from judicial officers via the Principal Child Dispute Services and/or regional coordinators, obtained via judgments. Informal feedback, spontaneously initiated and provided by judicial officers is also possible
  • as a quality assurance minimum, have a number of their family reports evaluated every 12 months; also their individual adherence to policy and practice requirements will be evaluated. This includes a review of their timeliness in submitting reports. Feedback from judicial officers, lawyers/independent children’s lawyers and available judgments about the work of Regulation 7 family consultants (reports or cross examination) will be considered, and
  • will be subject to a complaints process that is consistent with internal family consultant policy and processes.

In addition, the Regulation 7 family consultants now have improved access to the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court’s information systems, including for training and development, policy and practice guidelines, key research materials and judgments and access to the Commonwealth Courts Portal.

Client Service Senior Managers’ Group

Chaired by the Executive Director Client Services, the Client Service Senior Managers’ Group (CSSMG) comprises registry managers and registry and judicial service managers from the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court. The group aims to identify and implement ways to continually improve service delivery across the courts by streamlining procedures, ensuring consistency in work practice, providing better information and enhancing client contact with the courts.

The group meets by videolink six-weekly and uses the Family Law Courts’ Connections technology through a CSSMG community. Through this community members can discuss issues, provide reports, post blogs and upload files for discussion within the group.

CSSMG was involved in several priority projects during 2012–13 including:

  • the simplification of the document request form to assist clients seeking copies of orders or divorce certificates
  • the development and implementation of procedures to support the changes to the fees regulations, which included some new areas such as conciliation conferences
  • the intranets and the creation of a client service wiki to ensure staff have access to the most up-to-date procedural information
  • the review and refinement of the processes to support the family violence amendments introduced in 2012, and
  • the ongoing exploration of eFiling procedures to ensure that the most efficient use of the technology is being implemented in response to the growth in eFiling.

Staff recognition

Young Employees Advisory Group

The courts’ Young Employees Advisory Group provides young employees with the opportunity to participate in a national development forum, to increase the engagement of young employees within the courts and to provide a platform to contribute ideas to the future business operations of the courts. The 2013 Young Employees Advisory Group is the fourth such group and represents staff under the age of 27 years.

This year the group consists of 17 members including representation from judicial support, administrative and corporate staff from the Family Court of Australia and Federal Circuit Court of Australia (with family law and general federal law represented). The group also includes two employees from the ACT courts for the first time.

As part of the program participants are required to identify and develop projects that will benefit the courts. This year four project groups have been formed to develop the projects identified by the broader group. Each project group is sponsored by a senior executive staff member who will assist in managing the projects. The group has met in Melbourne and Canberra and will meet again in September in Sydney prior to meeting in Canberra for the final presentation of the projects to the CEO’s Management Advisory Group in November.

The four projects have a ‘business’ or ‘people’ focus.

Four projects

Clear clicking
Self-represented litigant perspective

Aspire
Employee performance and recognition

Simplify the pathway for self-represented litigants on the courts’ websites to provide clarity in respect to forms and procedures when commencing proceedings.

Business benefit: Easier access to information for litigants and reduced strain on court staff.

MEMBERS

  • Ebony Fenner (NEC)
  • Katherine Garaty (FCC Sydney)
  • Sophie Fitzgerald (FCoA Hobart)
  • Dan Snow (FCoA Melbourne)
  • Rosemary Brett (FCC Sydney)

PROJECT SPONSOR

Janelle McLoughlin
(National Communications Manager)

Develop a staff recognition program that is offered quarterly on a regional basis.

Appreciating 
Strong 
Performance & 
Innovation by 
Recognising 
Employees

Business benefit: increased staff engagement, retention and productivity and enhancement of the courts’ reputation as an employer of choice.

MEMBERS

  • Clare McFadden (NSO Canberra)
  • Sarah Dupe (ACT courts)
  • Leah Reid (FCoA Sydney)
  • Nina McKeon (NSO Canberra)
  • Elizabeth Pane (FCoA Melbourne)

PROJECT SPONSOR

Claire Golding
(Manager Human Resources)

Self-represented litigants
Stopping the DIY confusion

Education and exchange
Innovation and excellence

Produce a video aimed at guiding self-represented litigants through court processes particularly in respect to the service of court documents.

Business benefit: timely access to information that is relevant to current court issues, in line with existing digital strategies and aligned with the Court Excellence Framework.

MEMBERS

  • Sally Bastick (FCC Hobart)
  • Jillian Morrison (FCC Parramatta)
  • Raphael May (FCoA, Melbourne)

PROJECT SPONSOR

Denise Healy
(Media and Public Affair Manager)

An exchange program which involves the exchange of staff between the Federal Circuit Court, Family Court and state courts to be piloted in the Canberra registry.

An education program designed to provide university students with the opportunity to be mentored by the judiciary, gain an insight into courts and the decision making process. The group is working toward having this run as a pilot program in the Melbourne registry

Business benefit: improved capacity to engage, retain and attract employees.

MEMBERS

  • Jaime-Lee Simons (NSO Canberra)
  • Jasmine Purches (FCoA Melbourne)
  • Stephanie Page (FCC Parramatta)
  • Sienna Moore (ACT courts)

PROJECT SPONSOR

Jane Reynolds
(Regional Registry Manager Victoria/Tasmania and Manager Court Excellence)

International Day of People with a Disability

On 3 December 2012, staff of the courts came together for lunch via video conference to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the International Day of People with Disability. The day is a United Nations sanctioned day aimed at promoting greater understanding of people with disability and to encourage support for their dignity, rights and wellbeing.

Information technology

Court launches Twitter

In October 2012, the Family Court launched a Twitter pilot (@FamilyCourtAU) at the Family Law Conference in Hobart. Following the pilot’s success, the Chief Justice approved the ongoing use of Twitter as a social media channel.

At 30 June 2013, the Court had 530 Twitter followers. With the development and implementation of a Twitter marketing plan in 2013, this is expected to increase.

‘…I think you do a good job getting information out which would otherwise be released on the website. I have spoken to several family lawyers who follow the Family Court twitter feeds. The commentary is positive. It helps to stay connected.’ Journalist

Upgrade of Connections

Connections is a set of software applications introduced in 2012 to assist staff to communicate and collaborate in their day-to-day work, regardless of their physical location.

In February 2013 the courts upgraded Connections to provide a more usable cleaner look, new features and improved functionality. The new features provide greater capacity to share, recommend and follow information as well as improving the methods staff can use to work in remote teams, generate discussions, ideas and collect feedback.

At 30 June 2013, there were 128 communities within the courts. The objectives of the communities include sharing information, communicating initiatives such as Harmony Day, planning activities and projects and reviewing and improving procedures.

Plans for the future include integrating the profiles, wikis and blogs applications with the courts’ intranets to make better use of these applications and increase their accessibility. This should make it easier for staff to collaborate and communicate on projects and strategies that are undertaken to improve services to the community.

New videoconferencing software

New infrastructure to support video conferencing was implemented across the courts in the second half of 2012–13. The equipment allows video conferences between registries to be conducted for free. This is possible because the video conference content is now being carried over the courts’ data network instead of expensive external ISDN lines.

The new video conference portable units offer high quality video and sound. The uptake of video conferencing has increased rapidly for inter-registry links, as managers are finding this a more effective and cheaper solution for multi-site meetings, rather than the traditional telephone conference calls or travel.

At 30 June 2013, the courts were also working with the supplier to enable outside parties to link into the video conference systems via their PCs. This enhancement will allow parties and witnesses, subject to approval by the Court, to appear via video from any location in the world at no additional cost to the courts.

Merged courts’ administration formalised

In March 2013, the Courts and Tribunals Legislation Amendment (Administration) Act 2012 was given assent. Amongst other things, it provided for the administration of the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court to merge. The change takes place from 1 July 2013 and formalises arrangements that have been in place for some years, including for there to be a single Chief Executive Officer for both courts. The single agency is to be known as the Family Court and Federal Circuit Court. It does not affect the judicial operations of either court. The courts administration made the necessary changes to support this in the closing months of 2012–13.

For more detail, see Part 6, External Scrutiny.