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Judging the Budgets

News

Cite as: (2007) 81(6) LIJ, p. 26


Federal and state Budget funding is aimed at reducing court delays and boosting family law reforms.

Initiatives to reduce court delays were a centrepiece of the state Budget while at the federal Budget level family law was a key beneficiary.

While the Victorian legal community welcomed justice initiatives worth $110 million in the state Budget, disappointment was expressed that more funds were not forthcoming.

The state Budget on 1 May included:

  • $45 million for two extra Supreme Court judges, two extra County Court judges, and additional support staff and resources in the courts, Corrections Victoria and Office of Public Prosecutions;
  • $43 million to improve coronial services, including renovating the Coroners Court; and
  • $8.8 million to extend community legal services to rural and regional Victoria.

The allocated $110 million is expected to be spent over a four-year period.

Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) CEO Mike Brett Young said the LIV had lobbied for extra judges and he commended the government for acting to address court delays.

“We are happy the Attorney-General has made the extra appointments but we would have preferred to see an extra four judges appointed in the County Court, rather than two,” he said.

“We think that probably would have alleviated the problems with the Court in the long term.”

The funding follows a Productivity Commission report in January showing the Supreme Court had the worst clearance rates in the nation, with 30.2 per cent of civil cases in its Trial Division and 21.8 per cent in the Appeal Court more than 12 months old.

Other state justice initiatives included:

  • A 30 per cent increase in funds (worth $8.4 million) for pain and suffering compensation for victims of crime;
  • $2.4 million for ongoing professional development of judicial officers; and
  • $750,000 to continue work on the Melbourne Legal Precinct Masterplan.

While generally welcoming the Budget initiatives, Mr Brett Young said the LIV would like to have seen more funding for legal aid and an increase in criminal compensation payouts.

He also said that while the extra federal legal aid funding was welcome, he was concerned it was restricted to commonwealth matters.

The 2007/08 federal Budget covers a wide range of areas including legal aid, family law, national security and counter-terrorism.

A total of $36.9 million is to be spent on two new counselling services expected to help children have a greater say in the custody decisions which affected them. The services will also educate separated parents in conflict to focus on the needs of their children.

Federal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock announced $15 million will be spent helping the Family Court and Federal Magistrates Court streamline property disputes and children’s matters so they can be heard in one court under a nationally consistent regime.

A further $2.9 million will allow the Family Court to employ more family consultants and provide training.

Shadow federal Attorney-General Senator Joe Ludwig welcomed the extra family law funding but said the Budget contained no plan for improving the court system, no additional funding for AustLII and nothing to help resolve the “stumbling blocks” in Australia’s native title process.

“The time taken by the Family Court to finalise applications for final orders has gone up an average of 9.7 per cent over the past three years, yet this Budget revealed that new judges will not be appointed to fill recent vacancies at the Court,” he said.

Mr Ruddock claimed the government had significantly improved access to the court system, including establishing the Federal Magistrates Court in 2000, to deal with less complex matters.

Legal aid services in non-urban areas will receive an extra $19.7 million in federal funds over four years, including:

  • $8.3 million to maintain services;
  • $5.2 million to help separated families take advantage of the new child support appeal processes; and
  • $6.2 million for serious criminal prosecutions.

Mr Hulls welcomed the funding but said the federal government needed to change its policy and give Victoria Legal Aid the discretion to use any federal money as it “deemed fit”.

Victoria Legal Aid managing director Tony Parsons said the federal Budget didn’t allow for any significant expansion of legal aid services in Australia.

“This Budget adds some additional money to support some additional programs but it does not address what is a national scandal, the lack of any funding for civil law legal aid,” he said.

Other federal initiatives include:

  • $113.3 million over five years to harmonise Australia’s personal property security laws and to set up an online register of personal property security interests;
  • $35.7 million for national security and counter-terrorism measures including building secure facilities at key court buildings; and
  • $12.4 million to fight counterfeiting and piracy.

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