News: High Court circuit hearings reduced by budget cuts?

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.

[emphasis added]

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?

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About Katy Barnett

Katy Barnett is a Professor at Melbourne Law School. She has published extensively in the areas of private law and remedies, and is a co-author of ‘Remedies in Australian Private Law’ with Dr Sirko Harder. In 2016 she received the Barbara Falk Award for excellence in teaching.

3 thoughts on “News: High Court circuit hearings reduced by budget cuts?

  1. I’m less convinced that the Court’s ‘presence’ in various capitals – basically, a few days of sittings in a few capitals each year, which no-one other than the High Court bar even notices – is necessary or even important. The US and Canadian Supreme Courts exercise judicial power over similarly large territories in federal settings exclusively from their premises in national capitals. I wonder if the Australian practice is simply an anachronism left over from days before the Canberra building was built.

    I also wonder why maintaining separate Sydney and Melbourne registries is necessary now that many transactions can be done electronically. In particular, I’m not clear on the case for having those registries separately administered by the High Court (instead of the Federal Court, as in the other capitals.) If it makes sense to have a single federal administrative service for all the federal courts (such as the new Federal Court-run service administering the Family and Circuit courts), then why not have that service run the High Court’s admin too?

    Finally – to flog a possibly dead horse – there would surely be considerable savings in abandoning oral hearings for (lawyer-represented) special leave applications. Even accepting that oral hearings sometimes (perhaps) make a difference to such applications, I’m unconvinced that that possible benefit is worth the definite cost of full day sittings (with associated admin costs) in (typically) two simultaneous registries about ten times a year. I’d be curious to know if the comprehensive review mentioned by the CJ considered the costs of this distinctive Australian practice (again, neither the US nor Canadian courts do this.) Notably, the practice of oral hearings also imposes significant costs on parties (for hiring counsel), something that legal stakeholders probably are quite happy with, but parties would surely be willing to do without.

    It’s true that the High Court’s role under s71 of the Constitution isn’t a business, any more than the federal Parliament’s exercise of its functions under s51 is. But the administration of those functions is and it certainly seems reasonable to benchmark those against other similar bodies. Unless the High Court justifies its distinct (and, in some instances, distinctly costly) practices, then its case for being exempted from budget stringency processes applicable to other federal bodies will surely fall on deaf ears.

  2. “which no-one other than the High Court bar even notices”. Not true. Court was packed in Brisbane each day for Kuczborski. Also it made the front page of the Courier-Mail.

  3. I agree I was too categorical. ‘which, typically, no-one other than the High Court bar even notices.’ That being said: (a) the Courier Mail articles on the hearings that I found didn’t actually mention the HCA’s presence in Brisbane, e.g.; and (b) those that mentioned the ‘packed’ courtroom referred only to the presence of 18 barristers. (It may well have been difficult for bikie gang members themselves to attend, given the terms of the law under (unsuccessful) challenge) Regardless, my broader point remains: are the benefits from the Court’s tour of Australia worth the costs?

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