Speaking to Lawyers Weekly, two Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia judges and the FCFCOA chief executive and principal registrar detail the personal and vocational benefits to court work in a post-pandemic market.
Successful reformation of the Courts
Speaking last month at Senate estimates, FCFCOA chief executive and principal registrar David Pringle expressed pleasure that the reformed structure of the courts was “showing promising early signs of successful implementation”.
“Since 1 September, registrars have undertaken no less than 13,000 court hearings, including busy duty lists and interim defended hearings. This is work that would otherwise have been undertaken by judges, who have therefore been able to focus more on their core work, including trials,” Mr Pringle outlined.
“As a result, average judicial docket sizes for division 2 judges have dropped dramatically. When I appeared before the committee in May last year, their average docket size was 330 matters. When I was before you in October, it had dropped to 265 matters, and as of today, it has dropped to an average of 193 matters.”
Such a reduction in docket numbers, he went on, has been aided by the “significant” number of appointments of judges recently.
“Allowing for replacement of retiring judges and newly funded judicial positions, the courts have welcomed the appointment of 29 judges in 2021. This, coupled with the boost in registrar resources, has also enhanced the courts’ ability to conduct more court hearings and provide greater access to justice for rural and regional Australia, including through the highly successful electronic and registrar-led National Contravention List,” Mr Pringle said.
“Registrars and court child experts are also helping to resolve cases safely and efficiently utilising their mediation skills as part of the courts’ unique dispute resolution program. In fact, over 7,500 dispute resolution conferences have been conducted in the last 16 months, with more than 50 per cent resolving, saving costs and trauma for parties, and freeing up the courts’ pathway for more cases to be heard quickly and effectively.”
The data suggests, Mr Pringle surmised, that “significant inroads” are being made into the “very large backlog” of family law cases across the country.
In light of such successful reformation to the courts in recent times, two judges are espousing the personal and vocational benefits of such a legal career.
A rewarding career path
Judge Samantha Murdoch told Lawyers Weekly that she could “write an essay” on why her time in the courts has been so rewarding.
She has experienced, she said, the clear career path that now exists within the courts.
“I commenced working in the Federal Magistrates Court (as it was then known) as a sessional registrar way back in 2004. This suited me, as I was able to work part-time and juggle my parenting responsibilities with my wanting to have some sort of professional life that involved adult talk,” she recalled.
“I was then able to move into a registrar’s position, again on a part-time basis so as to accommodate both my professional and personal needs. I was then supported and encouraged when I was able to move into full-time work.”
Moreover, her honour continued, the “old-fashioned stereotypical public servant where you did the same job on day one to the day you retire is long gone”.
“The court’s focus on ensuring that all staff are highly trained and resilient means that there is a vast array of training opportunities and personal support provided at all times,” Judge Murdoch noted.
“I have worked in many roles within the courts. It is challenging, rewarding and never, ever boring. You are working at the coal face in assisting and managing families at one of the most challenging and stressful times in their lives.
“As a result, you grow not only professionally, but also personally.”
Judge Colin Campbell agreed that a career in the courts is “highly rewarding”.
“I started working in the court after two decades in private practice and found the range and intensity of professional opportunities in the court far greater,” his honour noted.
Judge Campbell reflected that he had a passion for mediation, but found the opportunities to act as a mediator few and far between, “or requiring the sacrifice of my litigation practice to a significant extent”. Moreover, moving to the courts gave him the chance to fine-tune his legal knowledge and litigation skills, as well as the opportunity to have an influence on the future of family law.
“I think the rewarding nature of legal careers in the courts is proven by the number of former registrars, senior registrars, and judicial registrars who have gone on to be appointed to judicial office as judges and justices,” his honour posited.
“Holidays and sick leave never caused a difficulty in the court because of the nature of the work, the ability to structure my diary to meet personal commitments, and the number of colleagues who were able to provide support or step into the breach when something unexpected came up.”
“I found private practice to be much less flexible and forgiving. Working in the courts, difficult and demanding clients were more spread out, and I didn’t have to deal with them with the same frequency or persistent intensity as in private practice. I also didn’t have the demands of billing targets and the distraction of so many other administrative tasks that eat up time and focus in private practice,” Judge Campbell surmised.
Post-pandemic life in the courts
Judge Campbell pointed to two factors that he sees as being enticing for those considering a vocational shift: “the growing realisation of the courts’ operations on a national basis and the focus on the use of technology as a central component to the way we do business”.
“Truly working on a national basis gives the legal professionals within the courts much broader exposure to different ideas and practices from elsewhere – further developing their knowledge, experience and reputation,” his honour argued.
Moreover, the courts have demonstrated the ability to “be at the cutting-edge of the use of technology in delivering court services – remaining open, and maintaining an almost ‘pre-pandemic’ case clearance rate over the last two years. In doing that, the courts have shown that they value new ideas and new approaches and have created an environment where ideas for technological innovation are valued”, Judge Campbell submitted.
There has also been, Judge Murdoch added, an elevated appreciation for the fact that not all court work and processes have to be in person.
“Much work and many hours behind the scenes was undertaken to enable our courts to immediately transition to the use of technology-based court events with judicial officers and court staff undertaking this work from home,” her honour advised.
“I think there is an increased flexibility and understanding that not all work all of the time has to be done within the registry. This has allowed the court to, for example, employ staff on a more national basis and to be in a position to quickly funnel resources where they are most needed at any given time.”
Emerging lawyers should consider the courts
For those coming through the ranks, Judge Campbell argued that a “very significant” reason to consider and undertake a career in the courts is the recent creation of a career structure for legal professionals, whatever your level of knowledge and experience.
When his honour started in the courts 17 years ago, he mused, “those with legal qualifications were almost entirely limited to the role of deputy registrar (equivalent to the current position of judicial registrar), and there was no real opportunity to develop your career beyond that role”.
Now, he noted, those with legal qualifications might find themselves working as legal case managers, judicial associates, deputy registrars, judicial registrars and senior judicial registrars.
“Lawyers with more limited experience could find themselves building knowledge, experience and reputation in the legal case manager role, and then over time moving up the ranks. Others with more knowledge and experience might come in at the higher levels – with some very experienced family law practitioners being appointed to the senior judicial registrar role,” he detailed.
“And, more so in recent times, the government has recognised the knowledge, experience and skill developed by working in the courts, appointing registrars at the highest level as judges.”