Categories of discovery – Federal Court

On 1 August 2011 the Federal Court of Australia (Federal Court) adopted the Federal Court Rules 2011 (Cth) (Rules) and its revised regime for discovery.  The Federal Court does not require parties to provide disclosure as a matter of course.  Instead, if a party wishes to receive documents from another party (or a third party), they must seek the Court’s permission.  This process in the Federal Court of Australia is known as discovery.  The Rules are to be read in conjunction with the relevant Federal Court practice notes, particularly Central Practice Note: National Court Framework and Case Management (CPN-1) and Intellectual Property Practice Note (IP-1).  In this article, we consider the process of seeking discovery of documents by categories in a matter before the Federal Court.

What is discovery?

Generally, discovery is an interlocutory (or interim) step in legal proceedings where parties disclose material relevant to the causes of action. Discovery is dealt with by the Federal Court in Part 20 of the Rules.  The core difference with discovery in the Federal Court as opposed to other jurisdictions is that no party is to give, and so no party has a right to, discovery (in the sense of provision of a list of documents) without an order of the Court (rule 20.12).  A party applying for discovery (Discovery Applicant) should not make a request unless it will facilitate the just resolution of the proceeding as quickly, inexpensively and efficiently as possible (rule 20.11).

The Federal Court encourages the parties to co-operate to minimise the burden of discovery.  Informal exchange of documents may minimise the use of formal procedures (CPN-1 paragraph 10.3).  Prior to the Discovery Applicant approaching the Court with a request, it is expected that the parties will have discussed discovery issues between them and, if possible, agreed on a protocol for the exchange of documents.  Such a protocol may involve consensual measures agreed to by the parties which may obviate the need for strict compliance with the Rules (such as avoiding the need for a list of documents).  The Court will consider the parties’ suggestions and may approve them if it considers them appropriate (CPN-1 paragraph 10.5).

In Trade Mark, Copyright and Design cases there will generally not be any need for discovery except where it directly relates to proof of copying, knowledge or intention by or on the part of the party alleged to have infringed or other specific topics directly relevant to an issue in the proceeding.  However, the Court is unlikely to make an order requiring extensive discovery unless satisfied that it is necessary for the just disposition of the proceeding (IP-1 Paragraph 7.1).

An application for discovery is made by the Discovery Applicant must state whether the party is seeking standard discovery or in the alternative state the proposed scope of the discovery.

Standard discovery

The requirements for standard discovery are set out in rule 20.14(1) and require that the party give discovery of documents:

  • that are directly relevant to the issues raised by the pleadings or in the affidavits; and
  • of which, after a reasonable search, the party is aware; and
  • that are, or have been in the party’s control.

For documents to be “directly relevant” rule 20.14(2) requires that they must meet at least one of the following criteria:

  • the documents are those on which the party intends to rely;
  • the documents adversely affect the party’s own case;
  • the documents support another party’s case;
  • the documents adversely affect another party’s case.

Non-standard and more extensive discovery

Pursuant to rule 20.15(1), a party seeking an order for discovery (other than standard discovery) must identify the following:

  • any criteria mentioned in the standard discovery that should not apply;
  • any other criteria that should apply;
  • whether the party seeks the use of categories of documents in the list of documents;
  • whether discovery should be given in an electronic format;
  • whether discovery should be given in accordance with a discovery plan.

Pursuant to rule 20.15(2)-(3), an application by a party must be accompanied by the following:

  • if categories of documents are sought—a list of the proposed categories;
  • if discovery is sought by an electronic format—the proposed format;
  • if a discovery plan is sought to be used—a draft of the discovery plan;
  • if extensive discovery is required – an affidavit stating why the order should be made.

What is a category?

In its broadest sense and in the context of Rule 20.15(2)(a), a category of documents is comprised of a description in sufficient detail (including subject matter) of a narrow and specific requested class or category of documents that are reasonably believed to exist under the control of a party.

Rule 20.15 adds to this by confirming that:

Category of documents” includes documents, or a bundle of documents, of the same or similar type of character”

Rule 20.15(1) theoretically enables the Court to make an order that a party discover almost any conceivable category of documents but of course, only on the condition the party seeking discovery can satisfy the Court that such an order would be justified.

While a category of documents does not necessarily have to be, for example, directly relevant to the issues raised by the pleadings or in the affidavits, as required for standard discovery under Rule 20.14, it must be stressed that the intent of discovery by categories is, in the usual case, to refine and narrow the range of discovery[1].

Any application for an order for discovery of a particular category of documents that would fall outside of the relevance criteria set out in Rule 20.14 would have to be accompanied by a strong argument as to why the Court should make that order.

Each application will depend upon its own facts and circumstances, and will be affected by the underlying policy of the Rules, which is to limit the scope of discovery and to advance the overarching purpose of civil procedure[2] which is to is to facilitate the just resolution of disputes according to law and as quickly, inexpensively and efficiently as possible.[3]


The parties to a proceeding in the Federal Court should use all efforts to perform an informal exchange of documents.  Applying to the court for an order of discovery should only occur when the parties have exhausted trying to co-operate.  Any discovery being sought should occur in a way which is as inexpensive and efficient as possible.

Links and further references


BCI Media Group Pty Ltd v Corelogic Australia Pty Ltd [2020] FCA 1556 – whether categories of discovery were too broad.

Hill & Smith Holdings PLC v Safe Barriers Pty Ltd [2018] FCA 1882 (27 November 2018) – whether proposed discovery was irrelevant

Halcon International Inc v Shell Transport and Trading Co Ltd [1979] RPC 459


Federal Court Rules 2011 (Cth)

Federal Court Practice Notes

Central Practice Note: National Court Framework and Case Management (CPN-1)

Intellectual Property Practice Note (IP-1)

Related articles by Dundas Lawyers

Subpoenas to produce documents – Federal Court

What is your duty of disclosure?

Do you need to disclosure a computer database?

Further information

If you need assistance with a litigious matter before the Federal Court please telephone me for an obligation free and confidential discussion.


Franchising lawyersMalcolm Burrows B.Bus.,MBA.,LL.B.,LL.M.,MQLS.
Legal Practice Director
Telephone: (07) 3221 0013  Mobile 0419 726 535



This article contains general commentary only.  You should not rely on the commentary as legal advice.  Specific legal advice should be obtained to ascertain how the law applies to your particular circumstances

[1] Clifton (Liquidator) v Kerry J Investment Pty Ltd trading as Clenergy [2020] FCAFC 5, Paragraph 173

[2] Dennis v Chambers Investment Planners Pty Ltd [2012] FCA 63, paragraph 39

[3] Federal Court of Australia Act 1976 (Cth) s37M

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