Subjects: Family Court Reform; Nation Security Laws
LEON BYNER: Now, the Family Court of Australia is going to be scrapped - I wonder what your experience has been if you've ever dealt with them - and a larger court is going to be formed. What it is, it's going to be a kind of an amalgam, with the Family Court merging with the lower level Federal Circuit Court. I caught up with, not a long time ago, with the Attorney-General.
Hi, Minister, it's Leon Byner.
Leon, how are you?
LEON BYNER: Good. I want to talk about, first of all, the business with the Family Court and how it's going to change because you plan to merge this Family Court with the lower level Federal Circuit Court.
LEON BYNER: Now, is this purely to expedite matters or do you expect that there'll be a better fairness in the whole process?
I think it's both, but the fairness will come from the fact that the newly created court will become responsible for drafting itself a whole new set of singularised rules, practice directions, procedures, forms, and they'll do that by adopting all the best practices that exist in jettisoning the rubbish ones.
LEON BYNER: Well again, not everybody's going to agree with this in the judiciary because it's been wired across Australia from a number of judges that they might take a big challenge to this. Why would they do that?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, the reason that we're doing this is not to benefit or indeed impact on judges or lawyers who provide services for clients. We're doing it to make life better for the tens of thousands of Australian families who use the system. Now it is true that under this reform the complexion, so the nature of work for some judges in the system will change as they do a less appellate work, which will go to the superior court being the Federal Court. But what that will do is free up a significant number of judges to be able to be working on first instance trial work and bring that to final resolution and that alone we think can cause about 1500 extra matters to be dealt with every year, which contributes to our ability to decrease waiting times and eat into backlog.
So, you know, I've worked very closely with the heads of jurisdiction on this model. Certainly there's been enormous agreement as to what the difficulties, problems and failings of the present system are. This is a clear and obvious structural answer to those and the court will be responsible for designing its own rules and processes and procedures when it's created as of 1 January next year.
LEON BYNER: So what about the average wait time, which at the moment can be 17 months, by how much do you reckon you're going to knock that down?
Well, we are measuring the performance of the changes on how many more matters we can hear every year. It's very difficult to estimate how much and how quickly the wait times will come down, but we very much expect that they will. But at the moment 22,000 matters are listed for a final order resolution in the courts every year and we consider that when these reforms are fully bedded down that we can have 8000 more matters heard every year and the invariable effect of that will be that wait times will decrease…
LEON BYNER: So when's all this going to happen?
1 January next year the new court will be created and we'll legislate this year to allow that to happen. Then the court will devise for itself its new simplified rules, processes and forms and when fully operational the resources will be freed up inside the court to hear more matters. There's $4 million attached to all the efficiency measures that we expect will be drafted by the new court. So it's probably the most significant structural reform for the Federal Court system that's occurred in decades.
LEON BYNER: And you think that people who go to the Family Court are going to feel more well treated than otherwise would be the case over this?
Well, I mean, the reality for anyone who's been through this experience or who knows people close to them who have, is that it can be and often is a very miserable time when a relationship, whether it's a marriage or not, breaks up, and when there's enough difficulty that you have to go into the court. So I can't promise happiness in the court, but the goal here is to ensure that we have better use of our resources, that we hear matters more quickly, that people spend less time waiting for a final resolution and less money is spent on legal representation.
LEON BYNER: I want to talk about security because there's now a lot of concern about the way in which China is immersing itself in political, university and even local council activities, as alleged by some of the security agencies. We've now got a very big review of spy laws in, probably, more than four decades. So what are we going to do? What's going to change?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, the reason that we've got this top to tail review of everything that's occurring in this space is that the space has two moving parts. As you've noted, it is a very dynamic threat environment. New threats of espionage, terrorism, influence and interference, new technologies. And since elected to government, the Turnbull Government has put through ten tranches of legislation which is designed to respond to those threats.
So when you've got a dynamic and changing environment and a changing response environment from government designed to keep us safe, we think it's very appropriate to step back and look at the whole system from top to tail. How people are directed and coordinated, how they share information, how they coordinate with each other; how staffing and resources are presently allocated and whether that's done efficiently, whether there's appropriate accountability and oversight. But as you note, people only need wake up and read the newspaper every day to realise that what Duncan Lewis, the director-general of ASIO has said in parliamentary committees is true, we live in an unprecedented age of foreign interference, influence, espionage and domestic terrorism.
LEON BYNER: Tell me, when you're trying to deal with this, you know that our biggest customer is not going to be happy and they will use those levers to try and put pressure on our country. You're aware of this, aren't you?
But this is not about any one particular international, country, or body or organisation. Our priority is keeping Australia safe.
LEON BYNER: Well how many others are there, really? I mean, you've got Russia and you've got China and then you've got all this business with ISIS and other groups. But essentially, we've got a big country, it's our largest customer that is ensconcing itself in many of our institutions if it can. So that requires a response doesn't it?
Well Leon, I assure you that this Government is alive to all of the changing elements of the environment - the national security environment - not merely one, but all of them. And one of our responses, for instance, has been the development of the Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill, which completely redrafts very old fashioned offences.
LEON BYNER: When's that going to hit the Parliament?
Well, it's presently before the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security and if I might offer the gentle observation, it's been there for too long. They've had it for six months. Critiques of it that were put during the committee stage have been responded to by the Government. We've sent drafting up. I'm at a little bit of a loss as to why it's taken this long, but to be able to respond appropriately and swiftly to the dynamic threat environment that you're talking about we have to get the report out of this parliamentary committee and get this legislation in a bipartisan way through Parliament.
LEON BYNER: Christian Porter, thanks for joining us.