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Resolution Institute Conference

Speech

Introduction

Good afternoon, and thank you for the kind introduction.

It’s a joy to be with you today and I’d like to begin by acknowledging a number of the dignitaries who are participating:

  • The Governor of NSW, Her Excellency the Hon Margaret Beazley
  • The Hon Chief Justice William Alstergren, Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia and Chief Judge of the Federal Circuit Court
  • The Hon Chief Justice James Allsop, Chief Justice of the Federal Court of Australia
  • The Hon Deputy Chief Justice Robert McClelland, the Family Court of Australia
  • The Hon Michael Kirby AC CMG, Retired Justice of the High Court of Australia
  • The Hon Justice Patrick Keane AC, Justice of the High Court of Australia
  • The Hon Wayne Martin AC QC, Retired Chief Justice of WA

And, of course, participants one and all, who are making time to be in on this online conference. I know the former has made it possible for me to participate in sunny Cairns, which is a particular pleasure for me.

Opening

It really is good to be with you for this afternoon for the Resolution Institute International Conference. It presents a chance for us to reflect on the challenges and opportunities that have arisen in the area of dispute resolution as a consequences of COVID-19.

This pandemic has affected Individuals, businesses, communities and families, as well as the global economy. In response, both the public and private sectors have had to adapt.

Today I will talk about how the Government has adapted our dispute resolution services, with a particular focus on the area of family law, as well as touching on dispute resolution on the international stage.

Family Law

Sadly, too many Australians are now intimately familiar with the experience of lockdown. These tough measures may be necessary to contain the spread of Covid19, but they do cause harm – and not just to the economy.

As data from around the world has shown, Covid19 and the measures enacted to contain it have led to increases in substance abuse, in family and domestic violence, and in family separations.

The government is committed to doing all it can to alleviate these harms. That’s why in 2021-22 the Australian Government will spend $229 million on a suite of family law services. These services will help separated and separating families to access to dispute resolution services that make it easier to navigate the difficulties they are experiencing.

We’ve also funded a new online dispute resolution tool called ‘amica’, to help separating couples reach an agreement on parenting and property issues without the need for legal representation or going to court.

Launched nationally in June 2020, amica uses artificial intelligence to suggest how separating couples can divide their money and property, taking into account the user’s individual circumstances, agreements reached by couples in similar circumstances and how courts generally resolve similar family law cases.

We know that the pandemic has increased the number of separations – and amica is a low-cost option that is readily accessible to many separating families in Australia. Whilst it might not suitable for all families, this innovative use of technology has exceptional potential to help many families to resolve their family law disputes without going to court and for as little as $1,000 all up.

Existing sections of our family law system are also adapting to the challenges of Covid.

As the primary gateway to the family law system, Family Relationship Centres are often the first point of contact for separating families – with the bulk of their work focused on resolving disputes over parenting arrangements.

They have quickly adapted to the challenges of COVID-19 by moving their services online. Their success is evident in the number clients who have indicated their preference to continue with online services in the future, often citing the convenience, lower cost, and level of comfort, as the reason they have provided that feedback

The move to online service provision has provided both the government and those directly providing services with much to think about. We will continue to monitor and evaluate these innovations to see how many of those should become part of the permanent way of operating.

But we must also remember that virtual services are not accessible or appropriate for many vulnerable Australians. The need for face to face services remains critical – with family law services, like many government services, seeing an increase in the complexity of client matters.

Family dispute resolution initiatives

The ability to adapt to the challenges of Covid19 has been made easier by the Government’s pre-existing commitment to reforming our family court system and promoting alternative dispute resolution services.

Under the 2018 Women’s Economic Security Package, the Australian Government provided $10.3 million in additional funding for each state and territory Legal Aid Commissions to conduct a two year trial of lawyer-assisted mediation to help families resolve small value property disputes out of the court system.

Early results of the trial have been promising, with the services successfully assisting families to resolve small value property disputes in a timely and proportionate way.

That’s why, as part of the 2021 Federal Budget, the Government announced an additional $7.2 million to extend the trial out to June 2023. This extension will ensure continuity for participants while the Government considers the findings of an independent evaluation report due in April 2022. 

The Morrison Government has also invested in the Legally-Assisted, Culturally-Appropriate Family Dispute Resolution pilots, funded from 2016 to 2020 – to assist separating or separated families from Indigenous or culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds who are experiencing family violence.

The purpose of these pilots was to trial new and enhanced models to resolve family law disputes in a culturally safe and empowering way, without going to court. Lessons learnt from this initiative will help the Government to ensure that future family law reforms are designed in a way that will best assist and support families who are experiencing hardship, regardless of the background from which they come.

Family law and courts reforms

These initiatives are important, but even greater benefit for separating and separated families will come from the Government’s structural reforms to the Federal and Family Courts – which have now passed parliament.

The most significant aspect of these reforms is the legislated single point of entry for first instance federal family law matters.

A single point of entry and a consistent pathway for family law disputes has long been called, and the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia will now provide this streamlined process.

The creation of a common set of rules, common forms, and common case management processes across the federal family law jurisdiction will bring significant benefits to users of the courts.

They will end decades of confusion for Australian families, with up to 8,000 additional cases expected to will be finalised each year as a result of these reforms.

To compliment these changes, the Government is providing the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia with an additional $60.8 million over four years – funding that will fundamentally reform and optimise the case management processes of the federal family law courts.

A key component of this reform is the increased use of Alternative Dispute Resolution – in most cases to be conducted by Senior Registrars and Registrars. This will better enable parties to reach an amicable resolution to their matter without the need for a contested hearing before a judge or the expense and emotional impact that this can cause.

The increased use of Alternative Dispute Resolution through this model will free up judicial time so that Judges can focus on those functions that only a judicial officer can perform they; trials, complex hearings and of course writing judgments.

Judicial time will also be saved through increasing the number of Senior Registrars and Registrars, who will play an enhanced role in triaging and managing cases upfront. That frontloading of support makes a really big difference to how well cases are run. And additional funding will be provided for Family Consultants, Indigenous Liaison Officers, and legal and administrative support staff.

Australian families will benefit significantly from these reforms in the form of a more efficient family court system – lessening the hardships families face during Covid and beyond.

International Relations – commercial dispute resolution

Of course, family law is not the only area of dispute resolution that is undergoing change.

Given the challenges to democracy and the rule of law faced by some jurisdictions in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond, Australia stands out as a stable, prosperous liberal democracy dedicated to the rule of law and boasting an independent and eminent judiciary.

This presents a major opening for Australia to raise its profile on the world stage in international dispute resolution in general, and to enlarge Australia’s share of international commercial arbitration.

To this end, the Australian Government is committed to clarifying and strengthening Australia’s legal framework in relation to international dispute resolution.

The Australian Government is also progressing work towards signing and implementing the Singapore Convention on Mediation – which provides a simplified uniform framework for enforcing international mediated settlement agreements.

This will promote mediation as an additional, effective alternative dispute resolution option in a wide range of cross-border commercial disputes, and raise Australia’s profile as a leading centre for dispute resolution.

We are also working closely with key arbitration stakeholders such as the Australia Centre for International Commercial Arbitration on further ways to promote Australian arbitration services.

This includes consideration of the findings from the recently launched Australian Arbitration Survey Report. The report outlines the results of the first nation-wide arbitration survey of Australian parties and practitioners to gain information on the nature and extent of arbitration activity involving Australia from 2017 to 2019.

  • Outlining the reasons Australia is an attractive arbitral seat in the Australian Trade and Investment Commission’s (Austrade) 2018 International Commercial Arbitration Capability Report – which illuminated Australia’s world-class international dispute resolution services and expertise to promote global trade, safeguard commercial relationships and manage risk in cross-border investment.
  • And the government is also currently considering a recommendation from the recent Patents Accessibility Review that Australia establish an arbitration service designed to settle patent disputes more efficiently. This work is being led by the Department of Industry Science, Energy and Resources, who commissioned Emeritus Professor Raoul Mortley AO to conduct the Inquiry.

These efforts will enhance Australia’s competitiveness and domestic capacity to attract new opportunities for our legal services market.

Conclusion

Ladies and gentlemen, I commend you on your commitment to responding to your client’s evolving needs during these challenging times and improving dispute resolution processes and practices to deliver more meaningful and timely outcomes.

Dispute resolution, whether it be a family law matter or international commercial arbitration, empowers individuals and organisations to move forward, to reach agreement, to rebuild lives and re‑establish relationships – equipped with new skills to avoid or resolve future disputes independently.

The Morrison Government remains committed to helping Australians to do just that. Thank you very much for your time and for the opportunity to participate with you today.