Part 2: The Year in Review
Federal Court of Australia Annual Report 2013-2014
During the year under review the Court continued to seek to achieve its objective of promptly, courteously and effectively deciding disputes according to law, in order to fulfil its role as a court exercising the judicial power of the Commonwealth under the Constitution. The Court’s innovative approach to managing its work, and the way it operates as an organisation, brought continuing recognition of its leading role.
During 2013–14 the Court maintained its commitment to achieving performance goals for its core work, while also developing and implementing a number of key strategic and operational projects. These are discussed separately below.
SIGNIFICANT ISSUES AND DEVELOPMENTS
NATIVE TITLE CONSENT DETERMINATIONS
The design of this annual report is intended to acknowledge, in a graphic way, the continuing acceleration of native title consent determinations during the reporting year. The Court commenced the acceleration of consent determinations following the creation of the priority list of claims in 2010. The rate of acceleration was further increased and has been sustained since the transfer of responsibility for mediation from the National Native Title Tribunal (NNTT) to the Court in 2012. In the years preceding the transfer of responsibility the average number of annual consent determinations was nine. Since taking on the responsibility, the Court has achieved an average annual consent determination of forty-three. During the reporting year sixty consent determinations were reached and it is expected that seventy-nine additional consent determinations will be made in the next two years.
These outstanding outcomes have been achieved through a combination of specialist case management techniques being applied by judges managing native title actions together with focussed mediations conducted primarily by highly skilled specialist native title deputy registrars of the Court. The deputy registrars work very closely with judges on the issues to be included in either the mediation or case management processes. This targeted approach has enabled the key issues to be resolved allowing agreement to be achieved, often culminating in a formal consent determination of native title.
ELECTRONIC COURT FILE
During the reporting year the Court also focussed on the major development work concerning the introduction of the electronic court file (ECF). It is proposed to implement the ECF from mid July 2014 with a rollout across the Court by the end of calendar year 2014. It is described as the ‘quiet revolution’ taking place within the Court. The project has been staged over a number of years without the need to request any additional funding and has been successfully undertaken in a reducing budget environment.
The ECF completely replaces the paper file, and will be the official Court record. The Court has quietly, and in close consultation with the legal profession, undertaken the necessary rule or practice changes to establish the environment in which the transformation from the paper file to the ECF will be effectively introduced. Over a number of years the Court has undertaken ‘proof of concept’ initiatives, including electronic filing projects, development of the eLodgment application, eCourtroom pilots and electronic trials. All of these initiatives have been undertaken under an umbrella framework of an eServices strategy. The strategy included principles such as data being captured at its source (most often the office of a legal practitioner), data entered only once (to avoid the paper system of the same information being collected by many people, and often re-keyed into information systems), and both judges and legal practitioners having instant access to the documents on a particular file, at the same time if necessary. The logic of this approach is known as ‘my files’ in the Court’s eServices strategy.
While the ECF will be introduced in July 2014, it does not mean that courtrooms will instantly transform to electronic hearings. The shift to a paperless courtroom will certainly start very quickly in 2014 with many judges and practitioners enthusiastic about the efficiency opportunities available through the use of electronic documents with related high speed searching applications. On the other hand, while the ECF will be introduced for all new court files there will be many existing paper based files and it is expected that the complete transition from paper to electronic court files will take some time. In the meantime, the Court will again continue with its very successful proof of concept approach and will take initiatives in relation to how the electronic court file could be used in the courtroom for electronic hearings. In the early stages following implementation, it is expected that almost all of the work undertaken by registrars in the courtroom will rely on only the electronic court file. Those procedures will also include the electronic production of signed and sealed court orders, delivered to the parties electronically.
The Court has produced a short video which highlights the changes likely to occur. That video and further information about the ECF can be found on the Court’s website.
Performance against time goals
The Court maintains three time goals for the performance of its work, two of which were put
in place over fourteen years ago when the majority of the Court’s work was less complex. Notwithstanding the increased complexity, the Court has maintained these time goals. The first goal concerns the time taken from filing a case to completion, the second goal concerns the time taken to deliver reserved judgments and the third goal concerns the time taken to complete migration appeals. The goals do not determine how long all cases will take, as some are very long and complex and others will, necessarily, be very short.
Time goal 1: Eighty-five per cent of cases completed within eighteen months of commencement
During the reporting year, the Court completed ninety-two per cent of cases in less than eighteen months, which is in keeping with the previous year. As shown in Figure A5.5 and Table A5.5 in Appendix 5 on page 144, over the last five years the Court has consistently exceeded its benchmark of eighty-five per cent, with the average over the five years being ninety-one per cent.
Time goal 2: Judgments to be delivered within three months
The Court has a goal of delivering reserved judgments within a period of three months. Success in meeting this goal depends upon the complexity of the case and the pressure of other business upon the Court. During 2013–14 the Court handed down 1630 judgments for 1365 court files (some files involve more than one judgment being delivered e.g. interlocutory decisions and sometimes, one judgment will cover multiple files). The data indicates that eighty-seven per cent of appeals (both full court and single judge) were delivered within three months (a slight increase from eighty-five per cent in 2012–13) and eighty-four per cent of judgments at first instance were delivered within three months of the date of being reserved (the same as in 2012–13).
Time goal 3: Disposition of migration appeals and related applications within three months
Most matters commenced in the Federal Court from decisions arising under the Migration Act are appeals and related applications.
The majority of these cases are heard and determined by a single judge exercising the appellate jurisdiction of the Court. The Court’s goal for disposing of migration appeals and related applications is three months from the date of commencement.
The Court applies a number of initiatives to assist in achieving the goal, including special arrangements to ensure that all appeals and related applications are listed for hearing in the Full Court and Appellate sitting periods as soon as possible after filing. Additional administrative arrangements are also made to streamline the pre-hearing procedures.
The Court carefully monitors the achievement of the three-month goal in order to ensure that there are no delays in migration appeals and related applications, and that delay is not an incentive to commencing appellate proceedings.
In the period covered by this report, 270 migration appeals and related applications from the Federal Circuit Court (FCC) or the Court were filed and finalised. This is a twenty-three per cent increase in the number of migration appeals and related applications finalised compared with 219 in 2012–13.
Of the 270 migration appeals and related applications finalised, the average time from filing to final disposition was 104 days and the median time from filing to final disposition was 106 days. The time taken to hear and dispose of some matters was impacted by decisions pending in the Court or the High Court including challenges to the validity of some legislative amendments.
In 2013–14 the total number of filings (including appeals) in the Federal Court decreased by almost fourteen per cent to 5009. Filings in the Court’s original jurisdiction (excluding appeals) decreased by seventeen per cent. The decrease in filings can be attributed to corporations matters including winding up applications, the majority of which are dealt with by registrars. Filings of many other matters including appeals, intellectual property and taxation increased during the reporting period. In the five-year period since 2009–10 the Court’s workload has increased by thirty-seven per cent.
Further information about the Court’s workload, including the management of appeals, can be found in Part 3 on page 21.
The Federal Court’s registries also undertake registry services for the FCC. The overall workload has grown since 2000, when the Federal Magistrates Court (as it was then known) was established. In 1999−2000 the combined filings in the general federal law jurisdiction of the FMC and the original jurisdiction (i.e. not including appeals) of the Federal Court were 5885, compared with 12 946 this year. During the reporting year the combined workload of the two courts increased by seven per cent compared with 2012–13.
It should be noted that Federal Court registrars hear and determine a substantial number of cases in the FCC. In the bankruptcy jurisdiction Federal Court registrars dealt with, and disposed of, 3832 FCC bankruptcy matters which equates to ninety-one per cent of the FCC’s bankruptcy caseload.
FINANCIAL MANAGEMENT AND ORGANISATIONAL PERFORMANCE
As a result of a decrease in filings by corporations and public authorities, Court fees received in the period January to June 2014 were $8.324 million less than the fees received in the period July to December 2013 and $5.210 million less than the fees received in the period January to June 2013. The Court had already reduced its forecast of fees received in the 2014–15 financial year in the 2014 Portfolio Budget Statement by $6.857 million when compared to the forecast in the 2013 Portfolio Budget Statement. If the trend in the reduction of filings in the last six months of the reporting year continues into the 2014–15 financial year there could be a further decrease of approximately $4.7 million in fees received. This trend would be reversed by a reduction (to harmonise with State jurisdictions) of fees charged.
The Court’s appropriation includes funding for the operations of the NNTT. The financial figures outlined in this report are for the consolidated results of both the Federal Court and the NNTT. Information about the NNTT’s budget is included in Part 5 on page 74.
The Court’s budget position continues to be affected by the Government’s tight fiscal position.
During the financial year expenditure was closely monitored to ensure that savings were realised wherever possible. As a result, the Court achieved an operating surplus before depreciation and asset revaluations of $1.564 million.
Notwithstanding the ability to achieve a surplus in 2013–14, in the next three-year budget cycle the Court will continue to manage limited parameter adjustment funding increases together with escalating costs and is predicting a balanced budget through the forward estimates period. The fixed nature of sixty per cent of the Court’s costs (such as judges and their direct staff) severely limits the Court’s ability to reduce overarching costs. These fixed costs also mean that, in effect, the impact of the efficiency dividend on the Court’s remaining costs is more than doubled. That is, it can only be applied to forty per cent of the Court’s appropriation and the bulk of that forty per cent includes the cost of wages for Court employees.