Chief Justice of the Federal Court Michael Black steps down

Damien Carrick: Today, a conversation with Michael Black, the retiring Chief Justice of the Federal Court of Australia.

The Federal court plays a central role in our legal system; it hears most civil matters arising under federal law: disputes over things like trade practices, corporations, intellectual property, and native title.

I visited Michael Buy Nike Air Huarache Run Ultra 88110-001 Leather Unisex Black White Ireland at his chambers in the Federal Court building in Melbourne. Now this court complex is very close to his heart. Michael Black feels strongly that it is beautiful, functional, and also reflects values that are central to the law.

Michael Black: I think it makes a point about architecturally, it makes a point about justice. It’s light, it speaks of access, it’s a welcoming building, it was intended to be a building that people would want to come into.

Damien Carrick: Michael Black, Chief Justice of the Federal Court from 1991 to 2010, thank you very much for speaking to the Law Report. Now we’re having a conversation here in the Federal Court building in Melbourne, which in many ways is your baby, it’s a very beautiful, 17 storey complex, with I think about 40 courtrooms. It was opened about 10 years ago in 1999. Walking around the building there’s an enormous atrium, lots of light, there are glass walls with the Australian Constitution etched on to it.

Michael Black: It’s also, if I can use the term, an egalitarian building. It was deliberately conceived, such that the views, the light and so forth, would be shared. So the staff have excellent facilities, the judges likewise my view I have to say is somewhat bigger than others, but my staff have virtually the same view, and the public have the same facilities. If you like, it speaks of equality, it speaks of light, and access.

Damien Carrick: Now your focus on court architecture and court surroundings more generally, that goes back I believe to your very first day as Chief Justice, and your first edict; can you tell me about that?

Michael Black: Ah, you know about that? Yes, well I’m happy to talk about it. There was a sign in the old Melbourne Federal Court building. The first thing you saw when you went into the building was this manilla folder, stuck on a glass wall with Blu Tack, and a texta sign that said ‚No Change for Phone‘, and I thought it was dreadful. So I had it removed. That was the first thing I did as Chief Justice.

Damien Carrick: Why was it so irritating for you?

Michael Black: It spoke of an attitude that was dreadful, and that’s not the attitude of our staff. Our staff are helpful, and I’m very proud of them. They’re there to serve the people, they know that, they feel that, and ‚No Change for Phone‘ is just not what it’s about.

Damien Carrick: Well let’s talk about clutter inside the court room, not just in the foyers or the public areas. I understand that you also don’t react very well when lawyers wheel in trolleys full of documents into a court room.

Michael Air Jordan XXXI Space Jam 845037-002 Men Black Grey Blue Ireland: No, I get a rash, around the neck. It’s terrible. Most of these documents are absolutely irrelevant. When you ask for what are the documents, they’re really irrelevant, you end up with a handful. These massive trolleys are wheeled by young people who are going to become disillusioned and they’re not there to wheel trolleys, they’re there because they want to be lawyers. I just get very upset about it.

Damien Carrick: Well the issues around document management and, well, they can be very indicative of serious public policy issues, around the use of courts. And we had a few years ago the C7 pay TV dispute, that that was sort of mega litigation, which I think involved something like 120 hearing days. An electronic database of something like 85,000 documents and there was something like $200 million in legal costs which accrued in that case. Your colleague, Justice Sackville, said This case was a waste of public resources bordering on the scandalous‘. So there are real fundamental issues here aren’t there?

Michael Black: Oh, absolutely there are. And, I might add, Justice Sackville was an extremely efficient judge, a brilliant person; if he’s driven to those sort of comments, there is a problem. But there are solutions. I won’t deal with mega litigation, but in smaller litigation.

Damien Carrick: Well what is the court doing about these sorts of issues?

Michael Black: I suppose there have been three fundamental reforms in my time. The first was the introduction of the individual docket system. Now if you’d like me to explain that, I certainly can.

Damien Carrick: Well briefly, as I understand it, that was introduced back in 1997 and the idea was that from whoa to go, a single judge would take responsibility for pushing along a piece of litigation to final trial.

That piece of litigation would from the time of its commencement, go into that judge’s docket, and he or she would be responsible for Cheap Nike Kaishi 2.0 Unisex White Ireland it, right to the end. And the idea was, that would mean that the judge would have to become on top of it from the start, and get on with it. And that’s the essence of the system. It’s used with great effect in the federal courts of the United States, and we adopted it and adapted it as well. We modified it to suit our own conditions, and it’s a very good system.

Damien Carrick: OK, that was adopted in 1997, but you still had cases like C7 cluttering the courts. So what’s been happening since then?

Michael Black: Well, put C7, put mega litigation to one side for the moment. The most recent reform is the adoption nationally, of a fast track system.

Damien Carrick: Is that the Rocket Docket system?

Michael Black: That’s its popular name, but in essence what that means is that the case that goes into the fast track list is going to be really fast. And the aim is to have it completed within a matter of months and have the judgment delivered within a matter of six weeks from the time the case is finished, and really get on with it. Now it’s quite complicated, but in essence, it involves really intensive case management, it involves the parties coming before the judge in what’s called a scheduling conference which is an acute focus on relevance. There is no place to hide. You’ve got to know all about your case, what the issues are, and everything that’s irrelevant is discarded. And that’s the big problem with legal costs. A lot of the costs are spent dealing with matters that ultimately turn out to be irrelevant. If you design an aeroplane on that footing, it would never fly, it would be too heavy.

Damien Carrick: Well part of the problem here isn’t it, that sometimes a legal battle is part of a commercial battle, and there are strategies which the parties engage in which aren’t necessarily about a real legal issue.

Michael Black: That’s right. And Fast Track cuts through that. There is no place to hide. If that’s your game, it’ll be exposed. And interestingly, we have found that in Fast Track scheduling conferences, the parties actually develop a spirit of co operation because it’s the only way to go; anything else is other than of course legitimate differences and disputes which we resolve the rest of it’s just cut out. And commercial clients of the practitioners want it, because it works on a commercial timeframe. I mean commercial timeframes don’t mean you report every 12 months; that’s not the way commerce works.

Damien Carrick: Well interesting that you say that, because one of the criticisms is, is that the people who benefit from the rambling nature of litigation is the lawyers especially.

Michael Black: Good lawyers should not find that a very happy way to benefit. That’s not a satisfying way to conduct the law.

Damien Carrick: Is this new system working? Is it having an effect?

Michael Black: Well it is. It started in Melbourne, that’s where it is principally at the moment. We’ve had very positive reports from people. Anecdotally it’s reduced a great saving in cost, saving in time. I’ve got the stats here and we can talk about them, but basically, it’s working. And matters are disposed of very quickly.

Damien Carrick: Another reform is the electronic filing of court documents in evidence. How does that work?