Coronavirus (COVID-19) updates from the Australian Government

Attorney General's: Supporting Regional Recovery and Growth

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.

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 Australian Government has committed more than $460 million in 2021-22 for legal assistance services under the National Legal Assistance Partnership 2020-25 (NLAP). There are 11 priority client groups under the NLAP, one of which is people residing in rural or regional areas. NLAP funding delivers services in regional areas, though the amount of funding specifically dedicated to service delivery in regional areas cannot be quantified.

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 Programme 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 and online hearings 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.

Entities falling within the industrial relations portfolio play an important role in contributing to the strength of the Australian economy. 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. Entities such as the Fair Work Commission, the Fair Work Ombudsman and Comcare have offices across Australia in addition to providing assistance to regional Australia via telephone and online services.

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 31 December 2020, the Attorney General’s Portfolio employed 7,917 staff under the Public Service Act 1999. Of this total, 6,001 staff (76 per cent) are employed in Canberra, central Melbourne and central Sydney, 1,723 staff (22 per cent) in other capital cities and 193 staff (2 per cent) in regional areas.

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

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

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.

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 Australian Government has committed more than $460 million in 2021-22 for legal assistance services under the National Legal Assistance Partnership 2020-25 (NLAP). There are 11 priority client groups under the NLAP, one of which is people residing in rural or regional areas. NLAP funding delivers services in regional areas, though the amount of funding specifically dedicated to service delivery in regional areas cannot be quantified.

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 Programme 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 and online hearings 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.

Entities falling within the industrial relations portfolio play an important role in contributing to the strength of the Australian economy. 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. Entities such as the Fair Work Commission, the Fair Work Ombudsman and Comcare have offices across Australia in addition to providing assistance to regional Australia via telephone and online services.

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 31 December 2020, the Attorney General’s Portfolio employed 7,917 staff under the Public Service Act 1999. Of this total, 6,001 staff (76 per cent) are employed in Canberra, central Melbourne and central Sydney, 1,723 staff (22 per cent) in other capital cities and 193 staff (2 per cent) in regional areas.

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

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

New initiatives

Women’s safety

Separated parents who engage with the family law system frequently experience a range of complex issues, often including family violence. The Australian government will invest $320.1 million over four years from 2021-22 through the Attorney-General’s portfolio to address women’s safety while they are interacting with the family law system. Key measures include:

Significant investment in Children’s Contact Services to reduce safety risks to family law system users

The Australian Government will provide $101.4 million over four years from 2021-22 ($17.5 million in 2021-22) to increase access to Children’s Contact Services (CSSs) for families across Australia who are unable to safely manage arrangements themselves for the contact and changeover of their children. The increase in funding to the existing 34 regional CCSs will boost access to these critical services for regional families. There will also be around 4-7 new CCSs located in regional areas funded through this measure. CCSs provide a safe, reliable and neutral place for supervised contact and facilitated changeovers, helping to minimise conflict between parents, and reduce the risk to women and children of ongoing family violence.

Maintaining and enhancing Family Advocacy Support Services 

The Australian Government will provide additional funding of $85 million over three years from 2022-23 for enhanced social supports through Family Advocacy and Support Services (FASS). This funding will bolster services in existing registry and regional circuit FASS locations and establish 26 new locations in regional areas. This measure will enhance the capacity of victim‑survivors of family and domestic violence — who are primarily women — to obtain access to justice and ongoing support while engaging in the family law system.

The FASS effectively fills a gap in legal and social service provision to family law clients with experience of family violence, providing supports and referrals for both victims-survivors and alleged perpetrators. The FASS also provides an alternative avenue for users to obtain legal assistance where they are unable to access other local legal services due to a conflict of interest. This issue may arise more often in regional areas where legal service options may be limited.

Under the Third Action Plan 2016-2019 of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022, the Australian Government provided $18.5 million for legal aid commissions to operate FASS. Following the FASS’ positive evaluation, as part of the 2018-19 Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook, the Australian Government provided an additional $25 million over three years ($7.8 million in
2021-22) to extend the existing FASS from 1 July 2019 to 30 June 2022.

Family Law System – improving access and safety for children and families

The Government will provide $123.8 million over four years from 2021-22 to support women and families experiencing domestic and family violence through a number of measures to increase information sharing and support in the family law system. Key measures include:

A New Approach to Family Law Case Management

The Australian Government will provide $60.8 million over four years ($16.2 million in 2021‑22) to the federal family courts to reform the family law case management process. to enable the federal family law courts to dispose of matters more efficiently, leading to better outcomes in terms of reduced costs and delays for Australian families who require the courts’ assistance to resolve their disputes. It will do so through the engagement of additional Registrars, Family Consultants, Indigenous Liaison Officers, and legal and administrative support staff. The new approach will benefit Australians in regional areas, where the need to travel long distances to attend interim hearings will be reduced. This will occur through a greater presence of Registrars circuiting through regional Australia and through a greater number of Registrars being able to conduct hearings remotely. This proposal together with the Government’s structural reforms (bringing together the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia into an overarching administrative structure) represents a holistic approach to reform of the family courts.

National Information Sharing Framework

The Australian Government will provide $29 million over four years ($3.3 million in 2021‑22) to implement the National Strategic Framework for Information Sharing between the Family Law and Family Violence and Child Protection Systems. Improved information sharing will improve family safety outcomes in the family courts and through state and territory family violence and child protection systems, by ensuring decision‑makers have prompt and timely access to all relevant family violence information. This measure will improve the exchange of information by moving away from a party-initiated, subpoena-based information gathering process towards a streamlined, proactive process where family law courts initiate information requests to help manage and respond to family safety risk.

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

The Australian Government will provide additional funding of $6.3 million in 2021-22 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 $4.8 million provided by the Australian Government in the 2020-21 Budget, $2.6 million in 2020-21 announced 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.

Legal and mental health supports for women experiencing family violence in regional and remote communities

The Australian Government will provide additional funding of $17.1 million over four years from 2021-22 ($4.2 million in 2021-22) to increase the accessibility of legal and mental health support services to women who have experienced family violence and are navigating the family law system. The Australian Government will provide additional funding to States and Territories for selected Domestic Violence Units (DVUs) to provide outreach to regional and remote locations. The Government will also provide additional mental health funding to existing DVU locations (including 10 that are in regional or remote areas).

This measure builds on the further funding provided for DVUs and Health Justice Partnerships (HJPs) under the First Women’s Economic Security Package, announced on 20 November 2018. Since 2015, the Australian Government has established 21 specialist DVU and HJP locations across all of Australia’s states and territories. DVUs provide specialist domestic violence legal assistance to women experiencing family violence, as well as wrap‑around case management and support services such as financial counselling, trauma counselling, emergency accommodation and tenancy assistance. HJPs, which operate in healthcare settings such as hospitals, connect women who have experienced family violence with legal support, and provide
cross-disciplinary training to health professionals on recognising and responding to domestic and family violence.

Current Initiatives

National Legal Assistance Partnership

The Australian Government is committed to funding legal assistance services in regional Australia. In 2020, the Australian Government entered into the National Legal Assistance Partnership 2020-25 (NLAP) with states and territories to provide legal assistance services across Australia.

The NLAP took effect from 1 July 2020. Through the NLAP, the Australian Government has committed over $2.3 billion over five years 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 Commissions (LACs), Community Legal Centres (CLCs), and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services (ATSILS). The NLAP delivers baseline funding for those organisations, as well as specific funding for the specialist Domestic Violence Units (DVUs) and Health Justice Partnerships (HJPs) and Family Advocacy and Support Services (FASS) that some LACs and CLCs operate.

The NLAP provides for vital legal assistance to keep everyday Australians, families and communities safe. 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.

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.

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

In the 2020-21 Budget, the Australian Government provided additional ongoing funding of $87.3 million over three years from 2021‑22 ($28.7 million in 2021-22) to maintain funding for family law services under the Family Relationship Services Programme. This funding brings the total funding for the Family Relationship Services Programme to $211.8 million in 2021-22, $206.8 million of which will fund a range of post-separation family law services under the Families and Communities Programme, administered by the Community Grants Hub of the Department of Social Services. This funding includes the funding provided to Family Relationship Centres to provide family law property mediation under the 2018 Women’s Economic Security Package.

The funded services are:

  • Family Relationship Centres
  • Family Relationship Advice Line
  • family dispute resolution
  • regional family dispute resolution
  • children’s contact services
  • parenting orders/post-separation cooperative parenting
  • supporting children after separation
  • counselling.

These services provide alternatives to formal legal processes and assist families which are separated, separating or in dispute to resolve disputes in a way that is in the best interests of children. The services are located throughout Australia. Information and resources are also available online through Family Relationships Online, in a way that is accessible to regional Australia. 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

In the 2020-21 Budget, the Australian Government provided $35.7 million over four years from 2020-21 ($10 million in 2021-22) 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. The funding is supporting three additional federal law judges and one family law judge.

Addressing Regional Court Safety Requirements

In the 2020-21 Budget, the Australian Government provided $5.4 million over four years from 2020‑21 ($4.7 million in 2021-22) to support the relocation and refurbishment of Tasmania’s Launceston family law courts registry. This relocation will improve the safety and security of court users and staff accessing the family law courts in Launceston.

Introduction and Criminal Enforcement of New Federal Family Violence Orders

In the 2020-21 Budget, the Australian Government provided $1.8 million over four years from 2020-21 ($0.2 million in 2021-22) 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. The Government introduced the Family Law Amendment (Federal Family Violence Orders) Bill 2021 in the Commonwealth Parliament on 24 March 2021. The Bill will establish the criminally enforceable FFVOs, which 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 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.

Women’s Economic Security Package

Under the First Women’s Economic Security Package, announced on 20 November 2018, the Australian Government invested $98.4 million in new funding over four years from 2019-20 for family law services and initiatives to support women and their families to recover financially after separation. This funding will provide separated families in regional Australia with access to affordable and timely assistance and support services.

In 2021-22, the Package includes:

  • $16.5 million in funding for family law property mediation:
    • $13.6 million will be provided to the 65 Family Relationship Centres across Australia in 2021-22 to provide mediation services to help families to reach agreements about splitting their property after separation without having to go to court.
    • $3 million will be provided for Legal Aid Commissions in 2021-22 to complete a two year trial of lawyer-assisted mediation for families with a property pool of up to $500,000 (excluding debt). The trial will finish in December 2021.
  • $1.9 million in funding for the federal family courts to continue a two-year pilot of simpler and faster court processes for dividing small claim property disputes between separating couples. The pilot is occurring at four locations across the country from January 2020 to December 2021.
  • $10.7 million to existing Australian Government funded specialist Domestic Violence Units and Health Justice Partnerships to continue existing services and provide financial support services such as financial advice, counselling and literacy.
  • $2.4 million to continue the Family Violence and Cross-Examination of Parties Scheme. Under the Scheme, Legal Aid Commissions in each state and territory will be funded to provide legal representation to all self-represented parties subject to the ban on direct cross‑examination in the Family Law Act 1975.

Family Advocacy and Support Services – Dedicated Men’s Support Workers

In the 2019-20 Budget, the Australian Government provided $7.8 million over three years from 2019-20 ($2.7 million in 2021-22) to employ dedicated men’s support workers in Family Advocacy and Support Services registry and circuit locations. Dedicated men’s support workers provide access to appropriate support services for both male victims and alleged perpetrators of family violence with matters before the family law court, such as parenting programs and men’s behavioural change programs.

Eleven of the registry locations, and all circuit locations, in which the Family Advocacy and Support Services operates are in regional areas. Funding dedicated men’s support workers, particularly in regional areas, has a positive impact by filling a gap in the provision of support services to men with family law matters in the courts. Greater engagement by men with the court system, enabled by increased social support, will contribute to a reduction of court time spent on self-represented matters and support victim safety in regional areas.

Elder Abuse Service Trials – More Choices for a Longer Life – protecting older Australians

In the 2018-19 Budget, as part of the More Choices for a Longer Life Package, the Australian Government provided $18.3 million over four years ($5.3 million in 2021-22) to directly support the implementation of three types of specialist services that will be used to test the effectiveness of different service models to support older people and their families seeking help with elder abuse:

  • specialist elder abuse units
  • health justice partnerships
  • case management and mediation services.

The new services will enhance Australia’s frontline service response to elder abuse by significantly expanding the practical support on offer to help older Australians and their families affected by elder abuse, including some in regional areas. Funding will be provided over the 2018-19 to 2021-22 financial years.

This funding includes administration costs for the service trials and a contribution to support the targeted elder abuse-related work of the Age Discrimination Commissioner.

The Elder Abuse Service Trials builds on the Australian Government’s 2016 election commitment, ‘Our Plan to Protect the Rights of Older Australians’, and contributes to addressing key findings of the Australian Law Reform Commission Report: Elder Abuse - A National Legal Response (ALRC Report 131).

Community Legal Services Program

The Community Legal Services Program is a nationally focused discretionary grants program, supporting the provision of legal assistance to the community by funding national service delivery projects, innovative pilot programs and program support activities. The Australian Government will provide $7.2 million to the Community Legal Services Program in 2021-22.

Under the Community Legal Services Program, funding is provided to three national community legal centres: Youth Law Australia (formerly National Children’s and Youth Law Centre), the Arts Law Centre and the Financial Rights Legal Centre, who deliver specialised information, legal advice and representation to disadvantaged individuals across Australia. Services are delivered through an innovative mix of telephone, email, video conferencing and face-to-face client contact to reach those most in need in all metropolitan, rural and remote areas of Australia.

The Community Legal Services Program also delivers a national Self-Representation Service assists people to represent themselves in the Federal Court and Federal Circuit Court. The Self-Representation Service ensures that self-represented parties, who do not have access to legal assistance and advice through other sources, are provided with legal assistance and referrals to alternative dispute resolution. The Self‑Representation Service is delivered through telephone, email and video conferencing facilities.

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

In the 2020-21 Budget, the Australian Government provided $2.5 million over two years ($1.4 million in 2021-22) 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 were temporarily suspended due to the pandemic. The courts have also subsequently expanded the types of matters on the COVID-list, to include disputes that have arisen or may arise as the pandemic continues, such as parental disputes around COVID vaccinations for children.

Native Title Respondent Funding Scheme

The Native Title Respondent Funding Scheme provides assistance for individuals or groups, including pastoralists, graziers and fishers, to have equitable access to legal representation in the resolution of native title proceedings where there interest are likely to be affected. Funding for the Native Title Respondent Funding Scheme in 2021-22 is $1.7 million.

Federal Circuit Court of Australia – Administered Fund

The Court utilises a dedicated administered fund to provide private property mediations. Its major focus is to provide services to litigants, particularly in regional areas in support of the Court’s circuit work. The fund, which totals $0.9 million in 2021‑22, enables the Court to deliver improved access to justice and creates assistance to litigants by providing:

  • Property mediation where the external provider is located in the same area as the litigants and in a position to offer more timely interventions.
  • Services that would otherwise be limited to Registrar circuits or require the parties to travel to capital cities.
  • Timely services that provide an opportunity for the early resolution of matters.

The use of the fund in this manner also enables the Court to reduce the cost of Registrars travelling to circuit locations. The fund is an innovative way of delivering access to justice to litigants in regional Australia where Court-based services are limited.