The Federal Court is poised to take charge of the Family and Federal Circuit courts under a new bill introduced to Parliament by Attorney-General George Brandis.
The Family and Federal Circuit courts have been plagued by trial delays and judge shortages, with Federal Circuit Court Chief Justice John Pascoe warning registry closures could become necessary.
Under the bill introduced by Senator Brandis, each court would report to the Federal Court but maintain a separate budget allocation and chief executive.
Senator Brandis said the move would save the system $9.4 million over six years and $5.4 million per year after 2021, funds which he vowed would be reinvested in the court system.
“It’s a cost-saving measure that will streamline the operation of the relevant courts from an administrative point of view,” he said.
However, Federal Circuit Court Chief Justice John Pascoe warned the measures would not address the court’s dire funding shortfall or increasing workload.
“My own view is that anything that increases the efficiency of the courts is worthwhile but it won’t solve all of the resourcing issues,” he said.
He suggested trial delays were mounting due to a flood of migration matters, increasingly complex Family Court cases and vacancies in several registries.
Earlier in December, Chief Justice Pascoe warned he was “seriously considering” the closure of the court’s registries in Parramatta and Wollongong.
Chief Judge Pascoe said the court’s Family Law caseload was becoming increasingly complex and its resources were “stretched to the limit and beyond”.
He also criticised the government’s failure to replace judges as they retire.
“The general federal law work of the court is growing, the Family Law work is getting harder and we are not getting timely replacements,” he said.
Senator Brandis responded saying the government would “shortly” appoint another three judges.
NSW Bar Association president Noel Hutley SC agreed there is an urgent need to address the “widening gap between the crushing caseload of the Federal Circuit Court and the number of available judges who can hear them.”
According to Mr Hutley, the Federal Circuit Court lost nine judges during 2014-15 and experienced substantial delays in the appointment of replacements. One Adelaide registry seat was vacant for more than a year while the Parramatta Registry went from five judges to three, one of whom is on long leave.
In the 2014-15 period, the Federal Circuit Court handled 95,341 filings, while the Family Court handled 20,397 filings, according to a report in The Australian.
By contrast, the Federal Court’s workload was just 4,355 filings, a slump of 25 per cent over two years.