As the Canberra Times reports, the High Court has just released its Annual Report for 2014 – 2015, which contains an alarming warning about circuit hearings around the country in light of budget cuts imposed by government imposed ‘efficiency dividends’. In French CJ’s Overview, he says at page 16:
In the 2014-2015 year, income received by the High Court including from its principal source, namely parliamentary appropriations, was $16.336 million. Operating expenses including unfunded depreciation charges of $4.802 million amounted to a total of $21.167 million. The underlying deficit after taking out unfunded depreciation allowances was $29,334.
The High Court has a small administration. Its total staff comprises (not including Justices) 99 persons. Thirty-seven are full-time and part-time ongoing staff, 36 are full-time and part-time non-ongoing staff and 26 are casual staff. The Court operates nationally with extended logistical requirements and large fixed costs. Its level of funding is low compared with the Parliament and many parts of the Executive Government. Historically its appropriated revenues have not kept pace with unavoidable cost increases particularly in building related expenditure. Many of the Court’s administrative costs are fixed, for example, statutory charges for electricity to operate the building. Government imposed efficiency dividends affect core elements of the Court’s operations such as Registry and Library staffing. The Court has undertaken comprehensive reviews of its Registry and administrative processes and structures since 2008. The position continues to be that there is no material scope to reduce the Court’s administrative costs without cutting significant elements of its operations including circuit visits which it undertakes from time to time to Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane dependent upon the workload in those capitals.
It would not be positive if the High Court were no longer able to go on circuit to some capital cities (or, as the Canberra Times suggests, any other capital cities other than Canberra). The High Court is a court for all of Australia, and as such, it is important that it has a presence in all States and Territories of Australia.
Back in the days when I was a State judge’s associate, I became enraged by a government questionnaire which described the court as a “business unit.” Courts are not “business units”. They do not produce profits. While courts certainly should not waste money, and should have an efficient administration, it sounds like the High Court has already achieved this. Fundamentally, the High Court is an essential arm of government whose role it is to adjudicate disputes. What price justice?