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 Strategic Priority 3

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Maintaining an efficient and effective Commonwealth justice system
  • Improving the efficiency of federal courts and tribunals through the effective use of available resources, including technology
  • Improving the family law system, including through better collaboration between the family law and child protection systems
  • Improving support for families involved in inter-country adoption and managing Australia’s inter-country adoption programme
  • Implementing the new National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services, and new funding arrangements for Indigenous legal assistance, to improve access to justice for disadvantaged people and maximise service delivery within available resources
  • Improving the native title system, including through the Council of Australian Government’s investigation into Indigenous land administration and use and other reports.
KPI 1: Our community impact
Measure: Australia’s regional and global position on civil justice (Factor 7) in the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index measuring how the rule of law is experienced by the public of countries around the world
Australia is well-placed, with a ranking of 15th for civil justice in a list of 102 countries.
KPI 2: Our effectiveness in achieving objectives
Measure: Stakeholder and client satisfaction with our effectiveness and the quality of our legal services
Stakeholder survey indicated 91% of respondents were satisfied.
KPI 3: Our efficiency in meeting goals
Measure: Total instances of civil justice policy advice, programme work and legislative change that are on time, within budget and meet requirements
Policy and programme work met requirements.
KPI 4: Our professionalism, skills and commitment
Measure: Stakeholder and client satisfaction with the professionalism, skills and commitment of staff involved in maintaining the Commonwealth Justice system
Stakeholder survey indicated 92% of respondents were satisfied.


The department delivered a number of key reforms to Commonwealth justice institutions and associated legal architecture this year. The reforms and legislative changes aim to improve operations, resourcing and efficiencies, and provide better access to justice, and funding for legal assistance for Australian communities.

Some reforms were complex and arduous for the parties concerned, and the high level of stakeholder satisfaction indicated through our survey is indicative of a successful approach – in particular, a 91 per cent satisfaction rating for the quality of information and advice and 92 per cent for accessibility of key departmental staff. The ratings on our KPIs of 91 and 92 per cent also reflect well on our work.

Courts and tribunals

The merger of the Federal Court of Australia, Family Court of Australia and Federal Circuit Court of Australia into a single administrative entity from 1 July 2016 was a major undertaking for the department and the federal courts during the year. It followed the Courts Administration Legislation Amendment Act 2016, passed by Parliament on 2 March 2016. This significant reform is part of a package announced in the 2015–16 Budget to support the financial sustainability of the federal courts.

The department also supported the Government in making appointments to the federal courts. During the year, five judges were appointed to the Federal Court of Australia, three judges to the Family Court of Australia and nine judges to the Federal Circuit Court of Australia.

Administrative Appeals Tribunal

The department worked closely with the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) to support the amalgamation with the Migration Review Tribunal, Refugee Review Tribunal and the Social Security Appeals Tribunal on 1 July 2015. The department and the AAT worked collaboratively with other portfolio agencies across the Commonwealth on reforms affecting the jurisdiction, caseload and funding arrangements for the AAT.

The department supported the Government in making 138 statutory appointments of members to the AAT and facilitated the assignment of 81 members to undertake cases in different divisions of the AAT. The department also supported the authorisation of 16 members to undertake functions under Commonwealth legislation, such as issuing warrants, in their personal capacity.

Instruments on choice of law and courts

To provide Australians with more freedom of choice when contracting, the department worked on instruments concerning choice of law and choice of courts. The Convention on Choice of Court Agreements was tabled in Parliament on 15 March 2016, along with a National Interest Analysis which states that there are significant reasons for Australia to become a party to the Convention.

It is intended that the Convention and the Hague Principles on choice of law in international commercial contracts will be implemented together domestically, through new legislation.

Northern Territory local court powers and jurisdiction

The Law and Justice Legislation Amendment (Northern Territory Local Court) Act 2016 amended the Acts Interpretation Act 1901 and 16 other Commonwealth Acts to ensure that the Northern Territory Local Court and its judges could continue to exercise jurisdiction and powers in relation to Commonwealth legislation, criminal and other matters, following the restructure of lower-level courts in the Northern Territory, which took effect on 1 May 2016.

Legislative frameworks

The Acts and Instruments (Frameworks Reform) Act 2015 commenced on 5 March 2016. The Act improves the usability and efficiency of the existing legislative instruments framework and brings the registration and publication of Commonwealth Acts into that framework to improve access to information about our laws.

The family law system and services

The department is responsible for family law services, which the Department of Social Services administers under a Memorandum of Understanding agreement.

During 2015–16, the Government provided $156.4 million to not-for-profit, community-based organisations and one business to provide services throughout Australia to help families during and after separation and divorce.

Work to improve the family law system’s response to family violence (including by improving collaboration between the family law and child protection systems) remained a priority. Initiatives included the following:

  • An evaluation of the co-located child protection practitioner trial in the family courts, undertaken by the Australian Institute of Family Studies and partly funded by the department, was delivered in July 2015.
  • The Family Law Council’s report on families with complex needs and the intersection of the family law and child protection systems was finalised in June 2016. The council’s report will inform future family law policy.
  • In March 2016, the department chaired a roundtable discussion on direct cross-examination of victims of family violence in family law proceedings. Attendees included judicial officers, lawyers, and advocacy and support groups.
  • Work on a national Family Violence Bench Book continued. Part 1 of the bench book will be released in late 2016 and will promote best practice in judicial decision-making in cases involving family violence.

The department handled ongoing case-related communication directed to the Australian Central Authority for the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, the Hague Convention on Jurisdiction, Applicable Law, Recognition, Enforcement and Cooperation in Respect of Parental Responsibility and Measures for the Protection of Children, and the bilateral agreements with Egypt and Lebanon regarding cooperation on protecting the welfare of children. We also responded to 590 general international family-law-related enquiries throughout the year.

Legislative amendments

On 18 August 2015, an amendment to section 121 of the Family Law Act 1975 commenced that explicitly permits the provision of certain information to state and territory child welfare authorities. This amendment improves information-sharing between the family law and child protection systems.

The Family Law Amendment (Financial Agreements and Other Measures) Bill 2015 was introduced in the Senate on 25 November 2015. The bill contained amendments intended to strengthen protections against family violence, and to improve the operation of the financial agreement provisions in the Family Law Act 1975. The Bill lapsed at the dissolution of Parliament on 9 May 2016.

Support for families in inter-country adoption

The department established new inter-country adoption programmes with Latvia, Poland and Bulgaria. We continued to enhance existing inter-country adoption programmes through close liaison with overseas authorities, including delegation visits to the Philippines, Thailand and China.

The department responded to 580 enquiries from members of the public and adoption bodies during the year.

Marriage Celebrants Programme

The Marriage Celebrants Programme reported on its first year of cost-recovered activities in September 2015. The programme operated in line with forecast revenue and costs. The department responded to approximately 24,700 marriage-related enquiries throughout the year. In a survey of celebrant stakeholders 90 per cent of respondents rated the enquiry service as good or excellent.

Legal Assistance Services

The department administered $323.3 million in legal assistance funding to legal aid commissions ($207.9 million), community legal centres ($43.0 million) and Indigenous legal assistance providers ($72.4 million) in 2015–16. Legal aid commissions and community legal centres are funded, via states and territories, through the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services. Indigenous legal assistance providers are funded through direct funding agreements administered by the department. The department also administered the Community Legal Services Programme and the Expensive Commonwealth Criminal Cases Fund, with appropriations of $9.3 million and $3.8 million respectively.

In September 2015, the Government announced a Women’s Safety Package of $100 million over three years. Legal assistance services received $15 million of this funding to pilot innovative support models to help women access legal assistance in safe locations. These services are now operational.

Reforms implemented through the National Partnership Agreement and funding agreements with Indigenous legal assistance providers from 1 July 2015 enabled the Commonwealth, state and territory governments, and the legal assistance sector, to undertake evidence-based collaborative service planning processes. This ensures services are being delivered in the most efficient and effective way and that available resources are targeted toward the clients who need them most.

The department provided 876 grants of legal financial assistance under a range of statutory and non-statutory schemes, including assistance for witnesses to the royal commissions, for legal representation costs and disbursements. We processed 94 per cent of grant applications for legal financial assistance within the required timeframe.

Federal offenders

The department manages federal offenders, including making decisions regarding release on parole, early release on licence, interstate transfer, breaches of parole conditions, forensic mental health cases and applications by parolees to travel overseas. The department also advises the Minister for Justice on petitions for the exercise of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy and applications for referral of federal offenders’ cases to a court of appeal for a review of the conviction and/or sentence.

In 2015–16, the department considered a total of 240 federal prisoners for release on parole or licence. Twenty-nine breach decisions were made, of which seven were revocations of parole. As at 30 June 2016, there were 984 federal offenders in full-time custody. This includes federal offenders who have been ordered to serve a parole period, recognizance release order, home detention or an intensive correction order.

Improving the native title system

The department worked closely with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet on the Council of Australian Governments’ (COAG) investigation into Indigenous land administration and use, which was delivered in December 2015. The department also contributed to the White Paper on Developing Northern Australia.

Improvements in the efficiency of native title processes were indicated by an increased rate of claims resolution. Movement towards consent determinations rather than litigated determinations has increased the rate of claims resolution. All but one of the 41 native title determinations handed down by the Federal Court in 2015–16 were consent determinations.


Over 2015–16, the Commonwealth:

  • was party to 109 claims (there were 331 native title claims on foot as at 30 June 2016)
  • joined two claims
  • resolved our participation in seven claims (whether by the matter resolving or withdrawal of the Commonwealth from the litigation).

In particular, the Commonwealth appeared and made submissions in the Timber Creek matter, the first native title compensation application in which the quantum of compensation was litigated.

Anthropologist Grants Programme

The purpose of the Native Title Anthropologist Grants Programme is to support and foster qualified native title anthropologists to facilitate native title claims resolution. Over 2015–16, the programme funded activities and workshops of the Australian National University’s Centre for Native Title Anthropology and Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation to provide professional development and opportunities to native title anthropologists.

The department engaged Nous Group to evaluate the effectiveness of the programme and has revised the objectives and guidelines following the findings, to particularly target the professional development of mid-to-senior-level native title anthropologists.

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