Chapter 1: The year in review

President’s overview

Photo of AAT President Justice David Thomas.

Justice David Thomas

The Administrative Appeals Tribunal has now been operating as an amalgamated tribunal for three years. I am proud to be leading an organisation that continues to deliver expert merits review whilst undergoing significant transformation.

The ability for people and organisations to seek independent review of government decisions is an important feature of our system of government. In 2017–18, the AAT reviewed a wide range of decisions that have a direct impact on people’s lives, including decisions about income support for pensioners and veterans, child support, the supports to be included in a National Disability Insurance Scheme plan, tax assessments and whether a visa should be granted or cancelled.

Parties have the opportunity to participate in alternative dispute resolution processes and hearings at the AAT, during which they are able to speak directly with a Tribunal registrar or member about their case. These and other processes we employ differ from those at the primary decision-making level, enabling parties to provide more information relevant to their case and for that evidence to be tested before a decision is made. While AAT members are bound by the same law as the original decision-maker, they make a decision with the benefit of additional information and the opportunity to engage with the parties. It follows that the member may make a different decision from the original decision-maker due to new information, rather than necessarily taking a different view from that of the original decision-maker.

The AAT’s statutory objective requires us to promote public trust and confidence in our decision-making. Tribunal members must give reasons for their decisions, explaining how they have assessed the evidence, and how they have applied the law to the facts of the individual case. We took a number of steps in 2017–18 to improve access to information about our decisions.

We implemented a revised decisions publication policy to increase the number and range of written decisions we publish and to enhance the transparency of our processes for publishing decisions, including how they are selected for publication. The AAT has published well over 4,000 written decisions made in 2017–18 and is among the jurisdictions publishing the highest volume of decisions in Australia.

To increase the accessibility of information about our decisions, we also launched a new monthly publication, The Review. It provides plain English summaries of a selection of decisions, offering an additional avenue for the public to learn about the role of the AAT. Plain English summaries of some decisions of interest are also now available on our website.

Membership and workload

In 2017–18, 59 new members commenced with the AAT, with 69 existing members reappointed to the Tribunal, a number of whom have been reappointed at a more senior membership level. There were 32 members whose terms of appointment came to an end this year and I thank them for their committed service to the AAT.

The number of applications the Tribunal is receiving continues to climb. More than 58,000 applications were lodged this year, a further increase of 14 per cent over the number received last year. While lodgements in the Social Services and Child Support Division were lower than the record levels experienced in 2016–17, the trend of increasing lodgements in the Migration and Refugee Division continued with 43 per cent more applications than last year.

We were able to finalise approximately 40,000 applications in 2017–18, five per cent fewer than the number completed last year as a result of having a reduced number of members available to deal with our caseload across the full year. We continued to exceed our performance target for the timely review of decisions, finalising 77 per cent of cases within 12 months of lodgement. I thank all members and staff for their dedication and hard work in achieving these results in the circumstances.

With the increasing lodgements over time and reduced number of cases finalised this reporting year, the total number of applications we have on hand has grown to exceed 53,000 at 30 June 2018. Approximately four-fifths of this pending caseload are applications in the Migration and Refugee Division.

The Immigration Assessment Authority received approximately 2,200 referrals to review fast track protection visa decisions in 2017–18, 17 per cent fewer than in 2016–17. With an increased number of Reviewers, the Authority was able to finalise almost 2,500 referrals this year, resulting in a 22 per cent reduction in the number of referrals on hand.


As noted in earlier annual reports, some of the procedural differences between the AAT, the Migration Review Tribunal, the Refugee Review Tribunal and the Social Security Appeals Tribunal that were retained at the time of the amalgamation are not conducive to an integrated tribunal with optimal case pathways. The inter-agency review of options to harmonise procedures led by Andrew Metcalfe AO identified a number of opportunities for further harmonisation through both legislative and non-legislative means. Proposals we are keen to pursue include:

  • the use of conferencing processes in the Migration and Refugee Division and the Social Services and Child Support Division, and
  • the introduction of directions hearings and the power to make enforceable directions in the Migration and Refugee Division.

These measures would deliver greater flexibility, providing a wider range of options for case pathways which can be tailored to suit the requirements of particular cohorts of cases. They would also bring significant benefits in improving overall efficiency and timeliness, helping parties and their representatives understand what they need to do in each case and setting clear expectations for moving them forward. We continue to work with the Attorney-General’s Department and other agencies to progress the proposals.

A key element of a truly integrated tribunal is building a cohesive and collaborative culture. This can be challenging in an organisation like the AAT which operates in multiple locations across Australia with regular changes in membership and a large number of part-time members. Our second National Conference as an amalgamated tribunal, held in May 2018, was a valuable opportunity for members and senior staff to come together, particularly those who have recently joined us. The theme of the conference was consolidating tribunal skills, with the program focusing on core competencies such as procedural fairness, conducting hearings and decision-writing. Such opportunities for professional development and to develop a cohesive working environment are integral to the continued development of a unified culture within the AAT.

Going forward

The major challenge for the AAT in 2018–19 and future years will be addressing the large and growing backlog of cases, particularly in the Migration and Refugee Division. The cumulative effect of member appointments over recent years means we now have some 30 fewer members than at the time of amalgamation with a caseload that has increased by 42 per cent since 2015–16. Furthermore, the current funding model for the Migration and Refugee Division only enables it to deliver approximately 18,000 finalised cases per year. While we continue to identify ways to manage our workload more efficiently and implement those not requiring legislative change, this will not be enough. More members will be required to hear and determine applications. To maintain flexibility to deal with fluctuating caseloads, we have favoured a model which assumes the appointment of sessional members. We have made recommendations for the appointment of additional part-time members and will continue to work with government in relation to the Tribunal’s membership and resourcing needs.

Another key focus for the Tribunal in the first half of 2018–19 will be the statutory review required by section 4 of the Tribunals Amalgamation Act 2015. To be undertaken by the former High Court judge Hon Ian Callinan AC, the review will examine the effect of the amendments made by that Act and the other matters specified by the Attorney-General in the terms of reference. It offers another opportunity to consider the legislative and non-legislative changes that could further improve the operations of the Tribunal.

One matter I intend to raise for consideration in the review is the current framework for the terms and conditions of AAT members. With legacy arrangements continuing to apply in relation to some aspects of their working arrangements, I believe it is important to clarify and standardise these matters. This is likely to involve a combination of legislative amendments and the review of internal policies and procedures. Standardising terms and conditions will facilitate members working more easily across the AAT’s divisions. To this end, we will also be pursuing the cross-assignment of more members to additional divisions to maximise our responsiveness to fluctuations in divisional caseloads.

With our large volume of cases, we need to ensure members are able to hear and decide cases as efficiently as possible. Another area of focus in 2018–19 will be implementing different approaches to the provision of support for members. Trials already underway, which involve Tribunal staff providing more consistent assistance to one or more assigned members, are producing promising outcomes. The new model aims to improve productivity and enhance job satisfaction for members and staff alike.

There is undoubtedly more work for us to do to deliver the full benefits of the amalgamation but I am heartened by all that has been accomplished so far. I remain steadfast in my expectation that the AAT has the capacity and resilience to implement the changes required to progress further towards a truly integrated organisation and to manage our significant caseload while continuing to provide high-quality independent merits review.

Registrar’s review

Photo of AAT Registrar Sian Leathem.

Sian Leathem

It continues to be a privilege to serve the AAT and work with the President, Justice Thomas, as we strive to further the AAT’s vision to be an expert, innovative and respected tribunal that delivers high-quality reviews.

During the reporting year, we completed a review of our Strategic Plan 2015–20 to ensure it remains an appropriate guide for our future direction, including the ongoing task of developing an integrated tribunal following amalgamation with the MRT, RRT and SSAT in 2015. In addition to giving the many thousands of individuals and organisations who apply to us the opportunity to have their decisions reviewed, we made substantial progress in 2017–18 in relation to other strategic objectives and priorities. Some of the key achievements are set out below.

Creating an integrated, national tribunal

The AAT was operating from multiple locations in most cities when we amalgamated. As a result, one of our major tasks in recent years has been to consolidate our accommodation. I am pleased to report that, in the first half of the financial year, we co-located our registry services in Brisbane and Melbourne, bringing our co-location program to completion. Registry services now operate from single offices in each city where we are located. This was a very large and complex undertaking involving much hard work on the part of many people.

Physical co-location makes accessing our services simpler for our users. It also contributes to our ability to further harmonise our operations across divisions and locations which remains a key strategic priority. By continuing to harmonise processes where it makes sense to do so, we will improve the consistency, efficiency and effectiveness of our operations for the benefit of external users, and our members and staff.

During the reporting period, we completed the mapping of registry processes across all divisions and registries in order to identify current resource needs and to inform future decisions relating to harmonising or streamlining processes. We formally instituted a Registry Transformation Program to explore new business processes and ways of organising registries to better support efficient case management and assist members in finalising matters. An early focus of the program is to cross-train staff, consolidate the management of registry teams, and ensure all registries can support the full range of review applications. This program will continue over the coming year.

Transforming how we work and maximising our use of technology

We are committed to being a tribunal that is accessible to all users with case pathways that are efficient, proportionate and timely. We are also focused on increasing over time the availability and uptake of online services that make it easier for people to interact with us.

During 2017–18, we continued to develop and trial new ways of managing different types of cases, particularly in the Centrelink, child support, migration and refugee caseloads. These variously involve early assessment of cases to select an appropriate pathway, improved communication with the parties about their review and enhanced preparation of cases for hearing which deliver efficiencies and assist to reduce backlogs.

Our internal Accessibility Advisory Group reviewed our operations against best practice standards which has resulted in a number of recommendations for improving our services that will be progressed in the next 12 to 18 months. In addition, we worked on improving the information we make available to help people understand what we do and what they need to do during a review. We launched six new information videos explaining our role and processes, which have been translated into a number of key community languages, as well as a version that features a presenter speaking directly to the camera with an Auslan interpreter. We developed a new series of fact sheets for the most common types of migration cases which provide parties with clear information about the kind of issues and evidence that are relevant in these types of cases. We also developed an online tool designed for community workers to help their clients provide relevant information to the AAT in reviews of disability support pension decisions.

In relation to our digital strategy, the reporting year saw the introduction of an improved online lodgement form for applications in the Social Services and Child Support Division as well as the final step in the integration of our online forms with our case management systems resulting in reduced data entry for staff and more efficient processing of applications. For internal users, the introduction of an enhanced remote access solution enables members and staff to work more effectively and securely away from the office. We also undertook work on the first iteration of a user portal which will enable parties in any type of case to upload documents electronically at any point of the review process.

Engaging with our stakeholders and building public trust and confidence

Ongoing engagement with our users and other stakeholders continued through the reporting year via a range of methods. In May 2018, we conducted our second survey of parties and representatives about their experiences with the AAT as part of our broader strategy for obtaining user feedback on our services. We are currently reviewing our approach to stakeholder engagement to ensure we are supporting our strategic objectives and this will continue to be a priority in the coming year.

In response to the increased media interest shown in the AAT, we developed our capabilities and systems for engaging with the media in 2017–18. This forms part of our broader strategy to promote the availability to stakeholders and the public of accurate and timely information about the AAT and our activities. Justice Thomas has mentioned in his overview two other key elements of this strategy, increasing the number and range of decisions we publish and the launch of The Review, our new monthly newsletter.

Optimising our resources and building capacity

The AAT is undertaking a large program of work to further harmonise and integrate our operations while simultaneously dealing with a growing caseload. Building our capability and capacity is therefore critical to our success.

A focus for us during the reporting year was considering how we ensure organisational priorities, planning and the delivery of projects are effectively aligned and managed. We are taking steps to enhance our program governance arrangements as well as consolidating our Program Management Office, project management methodologies and supporting technology systems.

We remain committed to the professional development of our members and staff. We commenced the development of a leadership capability framework and also undertook a further training needs analysis to help inform future training programs for staff. We facilitated participation by members and staff in a wide range of learning and development activities throughout the reporting year, including the National Conference.

Looking ahead

The AAT ended the financial year with an operating surplus which can be attributed primarily to lower than anticipated operating costs, particularly in relation to members. For the 2018–19 year, we are well-placed to fund strategic projects that will position us to operate more effectively and efficiently into the future as well as undertake our core work. In particular, we have the capacity to accommodate the appointment of additional members to help deal with the Tribunal’s increasing caseload.

We will continue to direct our efforts to providing parties and their representatives with merits review that is accessible, fair and, as far as possible, timely. The statutory review will provide another opportunity for us to take stock of how far we have come in realising the objectives of the amalgamation and the further steps we are taking to fully integrate and modernise the AAT.

I would like to thank our members and staff for their hard work and continued commitment to the AAT and its important role in Australian society which I am certain will be maintained in 2018–19.


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