Special measures relating to COVID-19
In March 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Court modified its practices in order to minimise in-person attendance on Court premises, with the Court’s priority being the health and safety of the community, including parties, practitioners, judges and staff, and the families of all of these groups. The Court issued four special measures information notes (see Special measures relating to COVID-19 for more information).
The Court quickly transitioned to hearings using remote access technology such as Microsoft Teams. The Court upgraded its information technology infrastructure, internet bandwidth and video conference enabled courtrooms in order to hold online hearings with the necessary transcript support. Judges of the Court shared knowledge, identified issues, and developed and documented new practices as they trialled online hearings. Various guides and communications were also developed to provide support to litigants and the profession.
From mid-April 2020, the Court was operating at 80 per cent of its courtroom capacity – a remarkable achievement in such a short timeframe. The Court’s practices and procedures in relation to online hearings and related processes, such as the viewing of subpoenaed material without the requirement for in-person attendance, continue to develop in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Embracing a digital future
The Court has developed a framework to support digital hearings. In basic terms, the digital hearing framework uses existing courtroom cabling to broadcast from a PC operated by a court-appointed digital hearing operator to monitors set up on the bench, bar tables, witness box and a projector screen for the public gallery.
The digital hearing framework is focused on being cost effective and easily accessible to all litigants. It is available to any judges (and/or parties) who wish to use it for hearings, other than for mega trials (which continue to rely on the use of external digital hearing providers). The framework is based on a pilot conducted in June 2019 and addresses:
- the IT infrastructure, software and hardware required to run a digital hearing
- the recommended courtroom setup
- personnel and resourcing needed to operate and support a digital hearing
- recommended case management practices, including orders to facilitate a digital hearing, and
- details and format for preparing a digital court book.
Certain learnings from the Court’s experience with the digital hearing framework, including the management of digital evidence, document exchange using digital mechanisms and the format and preparation of digital court books have been instrumental in the Court’s development and support of online hearings (see below) during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Court modified its practices in order to minimise in-person attendance on court premises. This included a complete acceleration of components of the Court’s digital strategy including the introduction of hearings by remote access technology. Microsoft Teams was the remote access technology rolled out in March 2020 to facilitate remote hearings and alternative dispute resolution by digital means. This has allowed the Court to maintain the continuity of its services and adhere to the Australian government restrictions whilst preserving access to justice.
In addition to the Special Measures Information Notes, the Court also published a National Practitioners and Litigants Guide to Online Hearings and Microsoft Teams to provide guidance for the legal profession and litigants-in-person appearing in online hearings.
Moving forward, the Court will capture key learnings, refocus its priorities to better support litigants and stakeholders and reinvigorate alternatives for the delivery of its services.
Digital litigation support
With its growing digital practices, the Court recognises the need to provide enhanced support and training for in-court technology, digital hearings and online hearings by way of dedicated digital litigation support staff. The Court has created a digitally savvy workforce through its ongoing digitisation of its services and practices. In order to accommodate the growing demands on its staff and technology, the Court is exploring an approach for the development and implementation of a digital litigation support team.
The Court commenced its iPad Initiative in March 2020 in order to promote alternatives for its Working Digitally strategy by maximising flexibility to meet individual judges’ work preferences. The iPad Initiative was an opt-in program for judges who were interested in opportunities to trial other means by which technology could assist them in performing their judicial duties.
An iPad Reference Guide and an ongoing training program has been developed to keep judges and chambers staff informed about how to effectively use the iPad and keep up to date with its benefits for digital litigation and judgment writing.
Digital Court Program
The Digital Court Program continues to be a priority for the Federal Court, the Family Court and the Federal Circuit Court, to streamline core business systems and create flexibility and operational efficiency across the three federal courts and the Tribunal.
In 2019–20, there were two key areas of focus. The first was the implementation of a digital court file in family law and the second was a proof of concept for implementation of a commercial off the shelf application to replace the Courts’ aged case management system.
The Federal Court and the Federal Circuit Court judges conducting general federal law matters, have enjoyed the benefits of a digital court file for some years. The digital court file for family law was originally scheduled for release at the end of June 2020, however this was brought forward to April 2020 as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. A digital court file can be accessed remotely by anyone on the Court network and is critical where multiple people require simultaneous access, for example, when working from home. Two applications were developed to support the transition to a digital family law court file. The ‘Judicial Dashboard’ was developed to provide judges with an overview of their docket, including links to those files in their docket that are digital, along with other statistics and data. The ‘List Assist’ tool was designed to help better manage hearings, with a large number of matters listed.
A proof of concept for implementation of a commercial off the shelf application to replace the Courts’ aged case management system was the final stage in the evaluation of a tender for this application that was commenced in 2019. The proof of concept focused on establishing one area of general federal law in a test system. Special needs and considerations of family law were also discussed during the design phase. Completion of this proof of concept has been delayed by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, however it will remain a critical project into 2020–21.
Extension of the National Court Framework
Since inception, the National Court Framework reforms have focused on the Court operating as a truly national Court through the national allocation of the Court’s work, development of a nationally consistent approach to practice and organising the Court’s work along national practice areas. The reforms also focused on reinvigorating the Court’s approach to case management and utilising the specialised knowledge and skills of judges on a national basis.
The reforms initially focused on matters relevant to the work undertaken by the judges of the Court, including the allocation of case work to judges on a national basis, the implementation of a national duty system, introduction of nine National Practice Areas and a suite of new practice notes. The national principles are now being applied to the work undertaken by judicial registrars with the majority of that work now being allocated on a national basis, a review of judicial registrar practice and development of practice guides currently in progress, and judicial registrars enhancing the mediation and case management support for judges on a national basis. The Court will continue to progress and embed these national principles and reforms.