Part 2: The Year in Review
Federal Court of Australia Annual Report 2014-2015
During the year, exercising the judicial power of the Commonwealth under the Constitution, the Court continued to achieve its objective of promptly, courteously and effectively deciding disputes according to law. The Court's forward thinking approach to managing its work and its ongoing commitment to relentless improvement is transforming the way it works as an organisation; bringing continuing recognition of its leading role as a modern and innovative court.
During 2014–15, 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
Electronic Court File
In the course of the reporting year, the Court fully implemented Electronic Court Files (ECFs) nationally. The ECF project was a significant initiative under the Court's successful eServices Strategy. The overall objective of the eServices Strategy is for the Court to take advantage of technological opportunities and advances to achieve benefits for both the Court and its users.
ECFs are digital files of all documents filed with, or created by, the Court. They are used by judges, registrars and staff. They are the Court's official record of the proceedings and completely replace the paper court files used previously.
The Federal Court is the first Australian court to implement ECFs and is a global leader in the practice of managing electronic court documents. The goal for the Court from the initial inception of ECFs was to create a seamless and effortless flow of electronic documents to the Court, within the Court and to appropriate parties outside of the Court. With the introduction of ECFs, the Court has achieved this goal through strategic planning, a 'proof of concept' method for system development, a consultative approach and by holding a strong vision of the future.
ECFs were brought online incrementally state by state from July 2014 until November 2014. The Court placed significant emphasis on education and training, both within the Court and externally for the Court's users, to support the introduction of ECFs. Within the Court, 360 people including judges, registrars and staff were trained in using the new system. Externally, more than 1000 members of the legal sector attended 'Working with the Court Electronically' information and training sessions, across all the registries prior to or just after ECFs being introduced. The fruition of these sessions saw the number of people registering to use eLodgment increase by forty-three per cent. The total number of active eLodgers has grown to over 10,000 with nearly ninety per cent of documents now being lodged electronically by litigants. With the Court's support, Court users have taken up the Court's eLodgment service in large numbers and are seeing the benefits of this service in their workplace.
In May 2015, the Court received one of the inaugural National Archives Awards for Digital Excellence for ECFs. The Court won the medium- sized agency category and was chosen from numerous applications from Commonwealth Government Departments and Agencies. The Court's award application, which outlines many of the benefits of ECFs to the Court and its users, can be seen at Appendix 10.
Amongst other words of commendation from the Award Panel judges, specific focus was given to the Court accomplishing this project within its budget with no additional capital funding. The panel stated ECFs represented a major productivity gain for the Australian legal system.
With more than 9500 ECFs now created, digital files continue to transform the way in which the Court works. The Court has begun an eTrials project to examine the needs of judges and litigants when working electronically in the courtroom. The project will aim to make courtroom electronic document management smoother and faster than working with paper. This project will find a flexible, user-friendly mechanism that allows all participants to take full advantage of the benefits of electronic documents and files but still keep up with the fast-paced activities in the courtroom.
The introduction of ECFs was also an enabling step to commence the implementation of the National Court Framework reforms.
National Court Framework
The Court's case management approach is being transformed by major and fundamental reforms called the National Court Framework (NCF). The reforms are designed to address the needs of litigants who seek highly skilled, expeditious and inexpensive dispute resolution. The Court's entire workload is now being organised and managed with reference to National Practice Areas – allowing it to meet the expectations of a truly national and international court.
The National Practice Areas (NPAs) are:
- Administrative and Constitutional Law and Human Rights
- Admiralty and Maritime
- Commercial and Corporations
- Commercial Contracts, Banking, Finance and Insurance
- Corporations and Corporate Insolvency
- General and Personal Insolvency
- Economic Regulator, Competition and Access
- Regulator and Consumer Protection
- International Commercial Arbitration
- Criminal Cartel Trials
- Employment and Industrial Relations
- Intellectual Property
- Patents and associated Statutes
- Trade Marks
- Copyright and Industrial Designs
- Native Title
Detailed descriptions of these NPAs (and sub areas) – as well as further information about the principles of the NCF reforms – are available on the Court's website at www.fedcourt.gov.au/law-and-practice/ national-court-framework.
A group of National Coordinating Judges who will have a thorough understanding of matters and jurisprudence in their NPA will manage each practice area. They will develop coherent and consistent practice, be responsible for judicial education, liaise with the profession and monitor workload and performance.
The key features of the NCF reforms are:
- a nationally consistent allocation mechanism with the docket system an important element of the allocation process
- flexible case management to take account of the character of the matter and the needs of the parties
- nationally consistent practice and procedure, replacing individualised registry and chambers arrangements
- a new duty system.
Following the announcement of the reforms late last year, the first NPA – Commercial and
Corporations – commenced on 16 February 2015. This practice area accounts for almost forty per cent of the Court's workload. The Court consulted widely regarding the reforms for this NPA conducting information sessions at all its registries over a six-week period.
To support the NCF reforms, the Court is creating a suite of comprehensive and real time business intelligence tools. These tools provide activity reporting as well as the ability to observe filing trends and monitor the Court's performance. The central goal of this work is to provide the right operational information to the Court at the right time so rapid and informed decision making can take place. By mid-2015 the Court completed a process of retrospectively characterising matters by NPA. This work was done to allow trending and uniformity in the Court's data for a new reporting scheme. This year the Court will start reporting on its workload by NPA and this information is contained in Appendix 5 on page 157.
The NCF reforms have also initiated the Court Registry Blueprint Project which focuses on realigning registrar and registry practices to better support the NCF. In March 2015, the Court commenced work on reviewing its practices and procedures with each stream of work lead by a District Registrar. The project aims to standardise these practices nationally. Court users will be given ample notice of any changes via the website and through other practice forums.
Work on introducing the NCF reforms continues with the full implementation expected to take place by the end of 2015.
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 145-6, 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 2014–15 the Court handed down 1530 judgments for 1264 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 2013–14) and eighty per cent of judgments at first instance were delivered within three months of the date of being reserved (the same as 2013–14).
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, 367 migration matters (including appeals and related actions, cross appeals and interlocutory applications) from the Federal Circuit Court (FCC) or the Court were filed and finalised. This is a thirty-six per cent increase in the number of migration matters finalised compared with 270 in 2013–14.
Notwithstanding that in the reporting year the number of appellate migration matters filed increased by seventy-two per cent from 393 2013– 14 (as seen in Table 3.4) to 677 in 2014–15, the Court has been able to achieve its goal for disposing of most migration matters in a timely and efficient manner.
Of the 367 migration matters finalised, the average time from filing to final disposition was 108 days and the median time from filing to final disposition was 103 days. The time taken to hear and dispose of some matters was impacted by the significant increase in migration filings and due to decisions pending in the Court or the High Court.
It is also noted that a large number of migration appeals and applications have been held in abeyance pending the outcomes of decisions of the Full Federal Court and the High Court. Those matters will now be listed in the Federal Court or will be remitted to the Federal Circuit Court for hearing.
In 2014–15 the total number of filings (including appeals) in the Federal Court decreased by thirteen per cent to 4355. Filings in the Court's original jurisdiction (excluding appeals) decreased by twenty per cent. The decrease in filings is again attributed to a decline in corporations matters including winding up applications, the majority of which are dealt with by registrars. Filings in areas such as Native Title increased slightly in the reporting period.
Further information about the Court's workload, including the management of appeals is available in Part 3 commencing on page 20.
The Federal Court's registries also undertake registry services for the Federal Circuit Court (FCC). The workload for the FCC has continued to grow over the last five years. In 2014–15 the combined filings were 13,317 increasing from 5885 since the Federal Magistrates Court (as it was then known) was established in 2000. 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, 3399 FCC bankruptcy matters which equates to ninety-two per cent of the FCC's bankruptcy caseload.
Financial management and organisational performance
The financial figures outlined in this report are for the consolidated results of both the Federal Court and the National Native Title Tribunal (NNTT). A summary of the NNTT's expenditure is included in Table 5.4 on page 72.
The Court's budget position continues to be affected by the Government's tight fiscal policy.
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 of $0.490 million. Notwithstanding the ability to achieve a surplus in 2014–15, in the next three- year budget cycle the Court will continue to manage limited parameter adjustment funding increases together with escalating costs.
The Government announced the merger of the Corporate Services of the Federal Court, the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court from July 2016. It is therefore not possible to predict the Court's budgetary position beyond 2015–16 at this time. The Court is endeavouring to achieve a balanced budget for 2015–16. 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 efficiency dividend is primarily applied to the non-fixed costs.