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Dispute management in Australian Government agencies

The Attorney-General's Department encourages and supports dispute management within Australian Government agencies.

Early resolution of disputes benefits agencies by reducing expenditure and improving productivity. This is consistent with the Australian Government’s broader productivity agenda and assists agencies to focus on operational outcomes.

Effective dispute management means:

  • early engagement between people involved in the dispute to identify issues and options for addressing them
  • getting assistance from a third party to facilitate discussion and resolution
  • litigating to resolve complex or protracted legal issues, including after narrowing the issues in dispute to ensure appropriate use of judicial resources
  • collecting data about how disputes are managed and resolved, which can assist to highlight the extent to which better dispute management practices save time and money, and lead to more consistent adoption of best practice.

We aim to help agencies avoid disputes in the first place. If a dispute does occur, we encourage agencies to resolve them early and manage them pro-actively, at an appropriate level.

This information can help agencies:

  • draft their plan for dispute management, or review their existing plans or strategies for handling disputes
  • understand some of their key dispute management obligations
  • promote early and appropriate dispute resolution, and improve access to justice.

Attorney-General's Department Dispute Management Plan

The former National Alternative Dispute Resolution Advisory Council (NADRAC) previously developed a guide to help agencies develop dispute management plans, which can be accessed on our NADRAC publications page.

The Attorney-General's Department has developed its own Dispute Management Plan, consistent with this guide. The department's plan describes ways of doing our work that can help us to prevent and manage disputes and avoid some matters unnecessarily escalating into formal legal disputes. The plan presents a recommended approach to dispute management organised around three objectives to:

  1. identify and manage complaints early
  2. foster a culture of active dispute management, where we truly engage with people in dispute
  3. record and use information about disputes in an appropriate and meaningful way.

Taking a strategic approach to resolving disputes has many benefits, including:

  • increasing access to justice for staff and external stakeholders
  • helping agencies fulfil their model litigant obligations
  • improving productivity
  • reducing expenditure
  • reducing errors and risk in handling disputes
  • enhancing government's reputation
  • encouraging better communication between staff, and with external stakeholders.

In developing their own dispute management plan agencies should focus on:

  • encouraging senior leadership to endorse the initiative and, later on, the plan
  • investigating the types of disputes the agency comes across
  • identifying and addressing causes of disputes
  • clearly defining the dispute management goals
  • considering what processes, policies, regulations and protocols already exist and identifying how these could be improved
  • building evaluation and review mechanisms into the plan.

The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) has developed its own dispute management plan, which can be found on the Australian Taxation Office website.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and Australian Energy Regulator have developed their own dispute management plan and policy, which can be found on the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission website.

Legal Services Directions

The Legal Services Directions 2005 are a set of binding rules issued by the Attorney-General about Commonwealth legal work. These rules are relevant to dispute management because they require Australian Government agencies to act as 'model litigants' by:

  • considering other methods of dispute resolution (such as an alternative dispute resolution process like mediation) before starting legal proceedings (see OLSC Guidance Note 12 on ADR for more information)
  • not commencing legal proceedings unless satisfied it is the most appropriate method of dispute resolution.

The Legal Services Directions do not require agencies to put in place a dispute management plan, but they are strongly encouraged to do so.

Civil Dispute Resolution Act

The Civil Dispute Resolution Act 2011 commenced on 1 August 2011. The Act encourages parties, including Australian Government agencies, to take genuine steps to resolve a dispute before commencing certain legal proceedings in the Federal Court and Federal Circuit Court. For more information, visit the department's related page on the Civil Dispute Resolution Act.

Alternative Dispute Resolution Interagency Group

The Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) Interagency Group discusses ADR and dispute resolution issues, particularly those relevant to Australian Government agencies. The group provides an opportunity for agencies to work collaboratively and share knowledge about ADR policy and initiatives.

The group is hosted and chaired by the Australian Taxation Office and meets four times a year in Canberra. Australian Government agencies are invited to join.

If your agency is interested in sending a representative, email the Dispute Resolution Section of the Attorney‑General’s Department at adr@ag.gov.au.