Federal courts

Our federal court system is in a dire state, and it is a direct result of mismanagement and neglect by the Attorney-General. 

Our federal court system is in a dire state, and it is a direct result of mismanagement and neglect by the Attorney-General. Tomorrow, Federal Court staff are taking protected industrial action in the form of a half-day work stoppage. This is the first time in 25 years they have had to do so. This is not a step that court staff ever wanted to take. These are people who deal with an overwhelming workload—day in, day out—processing cases and those caught up in them. It is work which is often very emotionally demanding. These staff have been pushed almost to breaking point by a crisis in resourcing, which has created a huge backlog in court hearings. The government's failure to appoint more court registrars has put pressure on the system, and the underfunding of legal assistance services has increased the number of unrepresented litigants, who often rely on court staff for guidance.

Insult has now been added to injury and court staff have been forced to reject a recent EBA that offered them a pay increase of just one per cent over three years and cut a range of conditions—and that is after four years of no pay rise at all. I met a number of delegates during the last sitting period in Canberra. Some had worked in the courts for more than a decade. They loved their job, even though it was hard and had gotten harder under this government. They were at their wit's end with the EBA process. They'd never had to mobilise to protect their pay and conditions before, but they were willing to do so now. It is not right or just that these court workers should be put in this position. The last thing they want to do is cause further inconvenience to people who use the courts and who are already suffering because of chronic delays in the court system.

These workers would not even be in this situation were it not for Senator Brandis's chronic neglect of the court system. This is how bad it is. The court executive cannot even give its hardworking staff a pay rise in real terms. I say to you, Senator Brandis and Senator Cash: fix it. This cannot go on. Give these workers what they deserve.

Senator Brandis's neglect of the court system has long been perplexing. There have been inexplicable delays in appointing judges to jurisdictions that could not afford to be without one. That includes Newcastle, where Senator Brandis refused to fill a vacancy for a Federal Circuit Court judge for seven months. This was a jurisdiction that was already under huge pressure. Senator Brandis nearly pushed it to breaking point. By the end, there was a 19-month delay in hearings. This kind of thing destroys families. It was thanks to the good work of my colleague the member for Newcastle, who embarrassed Senator Brandis into action, that Senator Brandis finally appointed a replacement, only last month. Only he can explain why he thought it was acceptable for him to take that long. Only he can explain to Newcastle families why he thought it was acceptable to prolong their already painful Family Court matters.

Now Senator Brandis has indicated he is planning a huge shake-up of the Family Court system. We know this because he has appointed a Chief Justice who has only one year left to go before he retires. But we have no idea what Senator Brandis is planning, and who knows if he will even be around in a year's time to oversee this so-called shake-up? Perhaps he's planning to oversee it from Hyde Park Corner, London. Given Senator Brandis's long history of neglect of the courts, and those in them, you must forgive me for being concerned about whatever plans he may have. He should come clean and say what they are. It's not good enough for the federal Attorney-General to simply hint at massive changes to the court system, possibly a complete replacement of the Family Court with some other court arrangement. He needs to tell the Australian people what he has in mind. He needs to consult with users of the court, with the legal profession, with all Australians, so that we can all participate in the future of the court system that is, at the federal level, the most used by the largest number of Australians. It is not too late to improve your legacy, Senator Brandis. You can start by respecting the staff of the federal courts.