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Report on Government Services 2020

Part C, Section 7: RELEASED ON 29 JANUARY 2020

7 Courts

This section is presented in a new online format. Dynamic data visualisations replace the static chapter format used in previous editions. Machine readable data are also available for download. A guide is available on accessing information in the new format.

The focus of this section is the court administration functions of Australian and State and Territory courts.

Data are reported for the Federal Court, the Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court, the criminal and civil jurisdictions of the supreme courts (including probate registries), district/county courts, magistrates' courts (including children's courts), coroners' courts and the Family Court of WA.

The Indicator Results tab uses data from the data tables to provide information on the performance for each indicator in the Indicator Framework. The same data in the data tables are also available in CSV format.

Skip to downloadable Courts data tables and supporting material

  • Context
  • Indicator Framework
  • Indicator Results

Objectives for courts

Courts aim to safeguard and maintain the rule of law and ensure equal justice for all. Court services support the courts and aim to encourage public confidence and trust in the courts by enabling them to:

  • be open and accessible
  • be affordable
  • process matters in a high quality, expeditious and timely manner.

Governments aim for court services to meet these objectives in an equitable and efficient manner.

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Service overview

The primary support functions of court administration services are to:

  • manage court facilities and staff, including buildings, security and ancillary services such as registries, libraries and transcription services
  • provide case management services, including client information, scheduling and case flow management
  • enforce court orders through the sheriff’s department or a similar mechanism.

Court support services are reported for the State and Territory supreme, district/county and magistrates’ (including children’s) courts, coroners’ courts and probate registries, and for the Federal Court of Australia, the Family Court of Australia, the Family Court of WA and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia.

The High Court of Australia, tribunals and specialist jurisdiction courts (for example, Indigenous courts, circle sentencing courts, drug courts and electronic infringement and enforcement systems) are excluded.

Roles and responsibilities

State and Territory court levels

There is a hierarchy of courts within each State and Territory (see figure 7.1). Supreme courts hear disputes of greater seriousness than those heard in the other courts. Supreme courts also develop the law and operate as courts of judicial review or appeal. For the majority of states and territories, the hierarchy of courts is as outlined below (although Tasmania, the ACT and the NT do not have a district/county court):

  • supreme courts (includes probate)
  • district/county courts
  • magistrates’ courts (includes children’s and coroners’ courts).

Differences in State and Territory court levels mean that the allocation of cases to courts and seriousness of cases heard varies across states and territories (further information about court levels is contained in the Courts interpretative material).

Australian court levels

Australian courts hear and determine civil matters arising under laws made by the Australian Government. The hierarchy of Australian courts (see figure 7.1) is as follows:

  • the High Court of Australia
  • the Federal Court of Australia and the Family Court of Australia
  • the Federal Circuit Court of Australia.

Detailed information about the Federal Court of Australia, the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court is available in the Courts interpretative material.

Figure 7.1 Major relationships of courts in Australia a,b
Major relationships of courts in Australia

a In some jurisdictions, appeals from lower courts or district/county courts may go directly to the full court or court of appeal at the supreme/federal level; appeals from the Federal Circuit Court can also be heard by a single judge exercising the Federal/Family Courts’ appellate jurisdiction. b Appeals from federal, State and Territory tribunals may go to any higher court in their jurisdiction.

Funding

Nationally in 2018-19, total recurrent expenditure by Australian, State and Territory courts in this Report was $1.99 billion (table 7.3). Expenditure in some states and territories is apportioned (estimated) between the criminal and civil jurisdictions of courts so caution should be used when comparing criminal and civil expenditure across states and territories.

Total recurrent expenditure less court income, for the Australian, State and Territory courts in this Report was $1.6 billion in 2018-19 (tables 7A.14−15). Court income is derived from court fees, library revenue, court reporting revenue, sheriff and bailiff revenue, probate revenue, mediation revenue, rental income and any other sources of revenue (excluding fines). The civil jurisdiction of courts accounts for the vast majority of income received (table 7A.13).

Cost recovery and fee relief in the civil courts

Court fees are mainly collected in civil courts and in some jurisdictions are set by government rather than court administrators. The level of cost recovery from the collection of civil court fees varies across court levels and states and territories. Nationally, one quarter of costs in 2018-19 were recovered through court fees in the Supreme/Federal courts, 35 per cent in the District courts and 34 per cent in the Magistrates’ courts (table 7A.16). Cost recovery tends to be low in the children’s courts — in these courts many applications do not attract a fee.

Most courts in Australia are able to waive or reduce court fees to ameliorate the impact on vulnerable or financially disadvantaged parties (fee relief). Table 7.4 shows that the proportions of total payable civil court fees which were waived or reduced were highest in the Northern Territory Magistrates' court (53.7 per cent) followed by the Family Court of Western Australia (26.6 per cent), the Family Court of Australia (19.4 per cent) and the Federal Circuit Court (19.0 per cent).

Fee exemptions are also available in some courts — this is usually where legislation exists to exempt particular categories of fees from being payable. Fee exemptions are more common in the Australian Government courts than State and Territory courts (table 7A.19).

During 2018-19, approximately $33.2 million of civil court fees were either waived, reduced or exempted and therefore not recovered by courts (table 7A.19).

Size and scope of court activity

Staffing

Descriptive information on the numbers of judicial officers and full time equivalent staff can be found in tables 7A.28–30.

Lodgments

Lodgments are matters initiated in the court system and provide the basis for court workload as well as reflecting community demand for court services (see tables 7A.1–2 for further information).

State and territory courts

Nationally, there were 785 108 criminal lodgments registered in the supreme, district/county, magistrates’ and children’s courts in 2018-19 (table 7A.1) compared with 431 516 civil lodgments (table 7A.2). An additional 75 501 probate matters were lodged in the supreme courts (table 7A.2). Lodgments were higher in the criminal courts than civil courts across all states and territories (figure 7.2). In the coroners’ courts, there were 25 717 deaths and 95 fires reported, with numbers varying across jurisdictions as a result of different reporting requirements (table 7A.2). There were an additional 15 875 lodgments in the Family Court of WA.

Most criminal and civil matters in Australia in 2018-19 were lodged in magistrates’ courts (see figure 7.2). The number of lodgments per 100 000 people can assist in understanding the comparative workload of a court in relation to the population of the State or Territory (see tables 7A.3 (criminal) and 7A.4 (civil) for data by State and Territory).

Australian Government courts

In 2018-19 there were 6028 lodgments in the Federal Court of Australia, 19 994 lodgments in the Family Court of Australia and 95 442 lodgments in the Federal Circuit Court (table 7A.2).

Finalisations

Finalisations represent the completion of matters in the court system so that they cease to be an item of work for the court. Each lodgment can be finalised only once. Matters may be finalised by adjudication, transfer, or another non‑adjudicated method (such as withdrawal of a matter by the prosecution or settlement by the parties involved)1.

Most cases that are finalised in the criminal and civil courts do not proceed to trial. Generally, cases that proceed to trial are more time-consuming and resource intensive. In the criminal courts, the proportions of all finalised non‑appeal cases that were finalised following the commencement of a trial in 2018-19 varied from 2 to 63 per cent in the Supreme courts and from 7 to 19 per cent in the District courts. Proportions in the Magistrates’ courts were generally lower still.

State and territory courts

In 2018-19, there were 785 982 criminal finalisations in the supreme, district/county, magistrates’ and children’s courts and 421 125 civil finalisations in these courts (tables 7A.5–6). The pattern of finalisations across states and territories (figure 7.3) is similar to that of lodgments, but lodgments will not equal finalisations in any given year because not all matters lodged in one year will be finalised in the same year. There were an additional 24 390 cases finalised in the coroners’ courts and 16 164 cases finalised in the WA Family Court. The number of finalisations per 100 000 people is available in tables 7A.7–8.

Australian Government courts

In 2018-19 there were 5681 cases finalised in the Federal Court of Australia, 20 345 cases finalised in the Family Court of Australia and 91 825 cases finalised in the Federal Circuit Court (table 7A.6).

Lodgments and finalisations in criminal courts — Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians

The proportions of all criminal non-appeal matters lodged and finalised in the Supreme, District, Magistrates’ and Children’s courts involving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander defendants, show that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are overrepresented in the criminal courts relative to their representation in the community (table 7.5). Indigenous status is based on self-identification by the individual who comes into contact with police, with this information transferred from police systems to the courts when the defendant’s matter is lodged in the courts. Data for criminal courts are presented for six jurisdictions (NSW (data are available for the Supreme Court only), Queensland, WA, SA, the ACT and the NT). For other jurisdictions data on Indigenous status is either not available or not currently considered to be of sufficient quality for publication.

Finalisations in civil courts – applications for domestic and family violence protection orders

Domestic and family violence matters2 are generally dealt with at the Magistrates’ court level. Applications for protection orders are civil matters in the court while offences relating to domestic and family violence (including breaches of violence orders and protection orders) are dealt with in criminal courts. Protection orders are the most broadly used justice response mechanism for addressing the safety of women and children exposed to domestic and family violence (Taylor et al. 2015).

In 2018-19, across all Magistrates’ courts approximately 35 per cent of all finalised civil cases involved applications for domestic and family violence-related protection orders (excludes interim orders and applications for extension, revocation or variation) (table 7.6).

The Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court do not issue family violence protection orders. Rather, the Family Court must consider and take action on notices of child abuse or risk of family violence when considering final order cases. Following a broadening of the definition of family violence in the Family Law Act in 2012, the number of notices being filed in the Family Court has steadily increased. In 2018-19, the proportion of final order cases in which a notice of child abuse or family violence or risk of family violence was filed was 35.7 per cent (Family Court of Australia annual report, 2018-19).

  1. For the purposes of this Report, civil non-appeal lodgments that have had no court action in the past 12 months are counted (deemed) as finalised. The rationale for this is to focus on those matters that are active and part of a workload that the courts can progress. A case which is deemed finalised is considered closed — in the event that it becomes active again in the court after 12 months it is not counted again in this Report. Locate Footnote 1 above
  2. While ‘domestic’ and ‘family’ violence are distinct concepts, the former referring to violence against an intimate partner and the latter referring to broader family and kinship relationships, the terms are often used interchangeably and their definitions generally incorporate both domestic and family-related violence. Locate Footnote 2 above

References

ABS (Australian Bureau of Statistics) 2019, Criminal courts, Australia, 2017-18, Cat. no. 4513.0, Canberra.

Family Court of Australia annual report 2018-19, www.familycourt.gov.au/wps/wcm/connect/fcoaweb/reports-and-publications/annual-reports/2018-19/2018-19-annual-report-toc (accessed 20 November 2019).

Taylor, A., Ibrahim, N., Wakefield, S. and Finn, K. 2015, Domestic and family violence protection orders in Australia: An investigation of information sharing and enforcement, State of knowledge paper Issue 16, Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety, Sydney.

The performance indicator framework provides information on equity, efficiency and effectiveness, and distinguishes the outputs and outcomes of courts. The framework of performance indicators for courts is based on common objectives for courts. The emphasis placed on each objective may vary across states and territories and court levels.

The performance indicator framework shows which data are complete and comparable in this Report. For data that are not considered directly comparable, text includes relevant caveats and supporting commentary. Section 1 discusses data comparability, data completeness and information on data quality from a Report-wide perspective. In addition to the service area's contextual information, the Report's statistical context (Section 2) contains data that may assist in interpreting the performance indicators presented in this section.

Improvements to performance reporting for Courts are ongoing and will include identifying data sources to fill gaps in reporting for performance indicators and measures, and improving the comparability and completeness of data.

The Steering Committee recognises that this courts data collection (unlike some other data collections) does not have an intermediary data collector or validator akin to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare or the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The reporting process in this section is one of continual improvement and refinement, with the long-term aim of developing a national data collection that covers court processes across the Australian, State and Territory jurisdictions in a timely and comparable way.

Outputs

Outputs are the actual services delivered (while outcomes are the impact of these services on the status of an individual or group) (see section 1). Output information is also critical for equitable, efficient and effective management of government services.

Outcomes

Outcomes are the impact of services on the status of an individual or group (see section 1).

Indicator framework

An overview of the Courts performance indicator results are presented. Different delivery contexts, locations, caseloads, case mixes and government policies can affect the equity, effectiveness and efficiency of court services. The allocation of cases to different courts also differs across states and territories and Australian courts.

The courts data collection is based on national counting rules, so data presented in this section may differ from data published by individual jurisdictions in their annual reports. There also can be differences from the data reported in the ABS Criminal Courts publication (ABS 2019) — the ABS publication provides information about judicial decisions relating to finalised and adjudicated defendants.

Information to assist the interpretation of these data can be found in the Courts interpretative material and data tables. The figures use data from the data tables. Data tables are identified by a ‘7A’ prefix (for example, table 7A.1).

All data are available for download as an excel spreadsheet and as a CSV dataset — refer to Download supporting material. Specific data used in figures can be downloaded by clicking in the figure area, navigating to the bottom of the visualisation to the grey toolbar, clicking on the 'Download' icon and selecting 'Data' from the menu. Selecting 'PDF' or 'Powerpoint' from the 'Download' menu will download a static view of the performance indicator results.

Download supporting material