Coronavirus (COVID-19) updates from the Australian Government

Attorney General's

The Attorney‑General’s Portfolio comprises the Attorney‑General’s Department and 21 Portfolio entities. The Portfolio delivers programs and policies to maintain and improve Australia's law, justice, security and integrity frameworks and to facilitate jobs growth through the promotion of fair, productive and safe workplaces. This work spans a range of significant areas and affects the lives of many Australians, including those in regional and remote communities.

The Attorney‑General’s Portfolio has a geographic footprint in every state and territory, and engages the perspectives of regional Australians to inform its work. As at 30 June 2020, the Attorney‑General’s Portfolio employed 7,931 staff under the Public Service Act 1999. Of this total, 6,038 staff (76.1 per cent) are employed in Canberra, central Melbourne and central Sydney, 1,704 staff (21.5 per cent) in other capital cities and 189 staff (2.4 per cent) in regional areas.

The High Court of Australia employs staff under its own legislation and has staff distributed around Australia.

The Portfolio’s footprint includes office locations such as Albury, Dubbo, Lismore Townsville, Launceston, Darwin, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide, Hobart, Coffs Harbour, Newcastle, Orange, Wagga Wagga, Cairns, Gold Coast, Rockhampton, Toowoomba, Mount Gambier, Bendigo, Traralgon, Warrnambool, and Bunbury.

Ensuring individuals, families and communities in regional areas can access the support and services they need is a key priority for the Australian Government. The Attorney‑General’s Portfolio manages legal assistance services and alternative pathways to formal legal processes to provide greater avenues to justice for Australians in regional communities. The Family Relationships Services Program delivers a range of post-separation services to families in regional communities. The Commonwealth Courts Portal and the Federal Circuit Court’s eFiling service similarly improves regional access to legal processes by providing Federal Court, Family Court and Federal Circuit Court resources online and enabling online lodging of divorce applications. The Administrative Appeals Tribunal continues to develop its online portal to enhance the ability of users in regional Australia to interact with the Tribunal online. The Attorney‑General’s Portfolio is also leading work to protect the rights of older Australians through Elder Abuse Service Trials, including in some regional communities.

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner provides assistance with privacy and freedom of information matters via telephone and online services to ensure regional Australians can access regulatory assistance. The Australian Human Rights Commission continues to investigate and conciliate complaints about discrimination and breaches of human rights and tracks the geographic range of its activities including engagement events, conducting training and workshops and commissioning research. The Australian Financial Security Authority has moved away from a reliance on counter services to online services/electronic channels while retaining post and telephone options accessed via their National Service Centre. The National Archives of Australia is continuing to invest in its corporate website, online learning resources and proactive digitisation of records, including at-risk collections, to improve regional and remote Australians access to National Archives’ services and will continue the National Touring Exhibition Program to make the national archival collection accessible to audiences throughout the country.

In July 2019, industrial relations functions were incorporated into the Attorney‑General’s Portfolio. This included a number of industrial relations Portfolio agencies with a regional footprint. The industrial relations group plays an important role in contributing to the strength of the Australian economy, including regional Australia. Industrial relations reform has a significant impact on driving jobs and wage growth, boosting productivity and strengthening the economy while ensuring the protection of employee’s rights. The industrial relations group has increased the Portfolio’s number of staff located outside Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne.

The Fair Work Ombudsman has a presence in all states and territories including offices in all capital cities and some regional areas. The Ombudsman’s regional footprint includes staff located in Coffs Harbour, Newcastle, Orange, Wagga Wagga, Darwin, Cairns, Gold Coast, Rockhampton, Toowoomba, Mount Gambier, Hobart, Launceston, Bendigo, Traralgon, Warrnambool, and Bunbury.

The Fair Work Commission has a presence in eight locations around Australia including offices in all capital cities and some regional areas, including Darwin and Hobart.

Comcare has offices located in Sydney, Newcastle, Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and Western Australia, and established new offices in Darwin and Launceston from 1 January 2020 to align with where its clients are based.

The Australian Government has also committed more than $398.3 million in 2020-21 for legal assistance services under the National Legal Assistance Partnership (2020-25) (NLAP). There are eleven priority client groups under the NLAP, including people residing in rural or remote areas. Similarly, additional funding of $31.1 million in 2020‑21 to support frontline legal assistance services during COVID‑19 will be distributed to the states and territories to allocate to legal assistance services to address specific demand as a result of COVID‑19. Many providers receiving both NLAP and COVID-19 legal assistance funding deliver services in regional areas, though the amount of funding specifically dedicated to service delivery in regional areas cannot be quantified.

New initiatives

Securing Agreement to the National Legal Assistance Partnership

The Australian Government is committed to funding legal assistance services in regional Australia. Following on from the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services 2015-20 (NPA), the Australian Government has entered into a new partnership with states and territories to provide legal assistance services across Australia.

Through the NLAP, the Australian Government has committed over $2 billion over five years from 1 July 2020 for legal assistance services to provide legal help to vulnerable people facing disadvantage. The NLAP provides long term, quarantined and guaranteed funding to Legal Aid Commission (LACs), Community Legal Centres (CLCs), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS), and specialist Domestic Violence Units (DVUs) and Health Justice Partnerships (HJPs).

The NLAP provides for vital legal assistance to keep everyday Australians, families and communities safe, including Australians in regional and remote communities. People residing in rural or remote areas are recognised as a national priority client group under the NLAP. The NLAP requires legal assistance services to plan and target resources to national priority clients, recognising that people facing disadvantage are more likely to experience legal problems, less likely to seek assistance and less able to access services.

Developed in collaboration with the states and territories, the NLAP builds on the NPA and incorporates recommendations from reviews of the NPA and the Indigenous Legal Assistance Program (2015-20).

The $2 billion in funding includes:

  • $1.2 billion in funding for LACs
  • $284 million for CLCs
  • $441 million for ATSILS
  • $51 million for DVUs and HJPs
  • $20 million for Family Advocacy and Support Services
  • $20 million for state and territory governments to administer the NLAP.

Under the NLAP, the Australian Government has committed more than $248 million in additional funding, including: the permanent restoration of $150.6 million in legal assistance funding that would have been subject to reductions based on decisions of consecutive governments; an increase in baseline funding for legal assistance services of $51.6 million; and additional funding of $25.8 million for frontline legal assistance services for family law and/or family violence. This funding will allow LACs, CLCs and ATSILS to provide essential services across Australia, including regional communities.

There are approximately 75 LAC offices across Australia, with around 76 per cent of offices located in regions outside of metropolitan areas. Approximately 75 per cent of CLCs are located in regions outside of metropolitan areas. There are seven ATSILS nationally which deliver services from 70 permanent locations, including regional and remote areas, court circuits, bush courts and outreach locations.

Responding to the COVID-19 Pandemic

The Australian Government will provide $170.9 million over five years from 2019‑20 to the Attorney-General’s Portfolio to assist Australians and Australian businesses to respond to and recover from the COVID‑19 pandemic. Key measures include:

COVID-19 Response Package – Attorney-General’s

In the July Economic and Fiscal Update, the Australian Government announced that it will provide $134.1 million over five years from 2019‑20 to support legal services and workplace advice to individuals and businesses affected by COVID‑19, including those living in regional, rural and remote Australia. The support includes:

  • $49.8 million over two years from 2019‑20 to support additional frontline legal services to respond to COVID‑19. Forty per cent of this funding will be for additional legal services related to domestic violence.
  • $13.5 million in 2019‑20 to ensure the legal assistance sector can maintain and scale up virtual service delivery in response to the impact of COVID‑19, improving the accessibility of services for individuals living in regional, rural and remote Australia.
  • $2.6 million in 2020‑21 for the Family Violence and Cross Examination of Parties Scheme, which helps protect victims of family violence in family law proceedings.
  • $15.8 million over four years from 2020‑21 to the Office of the Federal Safety Commissioner to continue ensuring safety on Commonwealth funded building projects, particularly as they accelerate as part of COVID‑19 economic recovery.
  • $46.3 million over three years from 2019‑20 for the Fair Work Ombudsman to enhance its advice and education services for businesses and employees about workplace laws, including in the context of COVID‑19.

COVID-19 Response Package – Attorney-General’s Portfolio Entities – Additional Resources

The Australian Government will provide additional funding of $35.3 million over two years from 2020-21 to support the timely processing of claims under the Fair Entitlements Guarantee Scheme, which injects money back into local communities where workers have lost their employee entitlements due to their employers’ liquidation.

The Australian Government will also provide additional funding of $5.1 million over two years from 2020-21 to the Fair Work Commission, to deal with the increase in the Fair Work Commission’s current and projected workload as a result of the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The funding will also be used to redevelop the Commission’s online capabilities, including its website and digital tools, to ensure that employers and employees, including those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, have access to workplaces services and information. This funding boost, particularly the improvements to the Commission’s online resources and digital tools, will benefit employers and employees all around Australia, including those located in regional areas, by making it easier to access workplace information and services.

COVID-19 Response Package – Federal Family Law Courts – Specialised Court Lists for Urgent Matters Arising from COVID-19

The Australian Government will provide $2.5 million over two years from 2020-21 to the family law courts, to support the operation of specialised court lists, which have been established to manage a surge in urgent applications arising from circumstances relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. The specialised lists operate across Australia on a national basis and are supported by electronic filing and hearings. This measure, while national, is critical to ensuring that Australians living in regional areas can continue to be provided with quick access to the courts during the COVID-19 pandemic, including those affected by family violence. This is particularly important given that face-to-face circuits to a number of regional and remote locations have been temporarily suspended due to the pandemic.

Expediting Family Law and Federal Circuit Court Matters

In the 2020-21 Budget, the Australian Government announced $132.1 million over four years from 2020-21 to expedite family law and Federal Circuit Court matters. Key components include:

Maintain Family Law Services Funding under the Family Relationship Services Program

The Australian Government will provide additional ongoing of $87.3 million over three years from 2021‑22 to maintain funding for family law services under the Family Relationship Services Program. Family Law Services assist vulnerable families and children to deal with issues associated with family separation and to resolve their parenting and property issues without having to go to court. Services provided include Family Relationship Centres, Children’s Contact Centres, Family Dispute Resolution, Parenting Orders Programme, and Regional Family Dispute Resolution. The range of services affected by this proposal provide supports including information, advice, counselling, supervision and dispute resolution. As approximately 36 per cent of all clients that access family law services do so in a regional or remote area, this funding will have a positive impact for regional Australia.

Additional Resources and Judges for the Federal Circuit Court

The Australian Government will provide $35.7 million over the forward estimates to increase judicial and registrar resourcing in the Federal Circuit Court for family law as well as migration matters. The additional funding provided for family law matters under this measure is designed to reduce delays in the family law courts so that separating Australian families, including those in regional Australia, are able to resolve their disputes more quickly.

Addressing Regional Court Safety Requirements

The Australian Government will provide $7.7 million over four years from 2020‑21 to support the relocation and refurbishment of Tasmania’s Launceston family law courts registry and Queensland’s Rockhampton Federal Circuit Court registry. These relocations will improve the safety and security of court users and staff accessing the family law courts in Launceston and Rockhampton.

Additional Funding for the Family Violence and Cross-Examination of Parties Scheme

The Australian Government will provide additional funding of $4.8 million in 2020-21 to state and territory Legal Aid Commissions under the Family Violence and Cross-examination of Parties Scheme (the Scheme). The Scheme helps protect victims of family violence – who are primarily women –in family law proceedings. The Scheme enables victims of family violence, including those in rural and regional areas, to pursue family law outcomes that prioritise their safety and future economic security.

This proposal builds on additional funding of $2.6 million announced by the Australian Government in the July 2020 Economic and Fiscal Update measure titled COVID-19 Response Package – Attorney-General’s, $2 million in 2019-20 announced by the Australian Government in the 2019-20 Mid‑Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) measure titled Supporting Victims of Family Violence in the Courts and funding provided as part of the 2018‑19 MYEFO Measure titled Women’s Economic Security Package.

Introduction and Criminal Enforcement of New Federal Family Violence Orders

The Australian Government will provide $1.8 million over four years from 2020-21 to support the introduction and enforcement of new federal family violence orders (FFVOs), and importantly, the ongoing enforcement of FFVOs under the National Domestic Violence Order Scheme. This measure supports a Council of Australian Governments agreement to ensure that family law personal protection injunctions are criminally enforceable by state and territory police. FFVOs will be available to families with a matter before a family law court circuiting in a regional area or a permanent, regional family court registry. This would reduce the need for vulnerable families in these areas with a family law matter on foot from having to initiate separate proceedings in a state or territory court for a criminally enforceable family violence protection order. Navigating multiple courts may be particularly difficult in regional areas due to the geographical distances between court locations.

Bushfire Response

The Australian Government will provide $38.7 million over two years from 2019-20 to the Attorney-General’s Portfolio to conduct a Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements, and to assist Australians and Australian businesses to respond to and recover from the Black Summer bushfires. These measures include:

Bushfire Response Package – Royal Commission into Bushfires

On 20 February 2020, the Australian Government established the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements. The Australian Government has allocated $30 million over two years from 2019-20 to fund this Royal Commission. The Royal Commission is examining the responsibilities of, and coordination between, Australian governments relating to national disaster arrangements. The scope of the inquiry includes governments’ preparedness for, response to, resilience to, and recovery from, natural disasters and the arrangements for improving resilience and adapting to changing climatic conditions. The Royal Commission’s recommendations will inform national natural disaster arrangements, including in regional and rural Australia.

Legal Assistance for Communities Affected by Bushfires

In the July Economic and Fiscal Update, the Australian Government announced $2 billion for the National Bushfire Recovery Fund (NBRF) to assist communities and businesses to recover and rebuild following the 2019‑20 bushfires. The NBRF will provide funding of over $8.7 million over two years from 2019-20 in payments to legal assistance providers to assist with bushfire response and recovery. Funding has been specifically targeted to regional, rural and remote communities impacted by the bushfires within New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia. This funding includes:

  • $5.2 million for services to individuals
  • $3.5 million for services to small businesses and primary producers.

This funding is in addition to funding available under existing disaster recovery assistance arrangements.

JobMaker Plan – Second Women’s Economic Security Package

Under the Second Women’s Economic Security Package, the Australian Government will provide additional funding of $2.1 million over three years from 2020‑21 for the Attorney-General’s Department to implement key recommendations in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s Respect@Work: National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces. The report found that factors such as geographic isolation, lower population density and cultural dimensions can increase the risk of sexual harassment in regional, rural and remote areas and create barriers to reporting or challenging these behaviours.

This measure includes funding to develop an online platform to provide free, practical information, education and resources for employers and workers through a single online portal that all Australians can access, including individuals and businesses in regional areas.