17 March 2020

Courts adapt proceedings amid coronavirus fears

| Dominic Giannini
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Law courts of ACT

The ACT Supreme Court has put in a range of measures to help stop the spread of coronavirus while continuing to deliver judicial services. Photo: File.

Courts across the ACT and NSW are putting contingency measures in place to help slow the spread of coronavirus, including tele-appearances and temporarily suspending new jury trials.

The ACT Supreme Court has said there will be no disruption to current jury trials and that audiovisual facilities in the new court building will support the safe continuation of the court processes.

The changes mean that some jury trials which are meant to start in March and April will have to be rescheduled, but the public is being told to assume that courts will proceed as normal unless they are notified otherwise in relation to a specific case.

Kamy Saeedi Law Partner Michael Kukulies-Smith, who chairs the ACT Law Society’s criminal law committee, said it’s important that the ACT judicial system continues to administer justice despite the pandemic.

“The ACT criminal justice system needs to function through the pandemic. Fundamental rights of accused in custody and awaiting trial should not be sacrificed. Thus, courts are still sitting, but if things worsen this may need to change,” Mr Kukulies-Smith said.

“The courts and legal practitioners are doing what they can to work through these issues so the criminal justice system continues to function in the ACT.

“Some aspects of the courts will be put on hold but there is a requirement that if you are arrested and charged, you must face court within 48 hours. That is a legal requirement that is not going to go away. We will still have to physically front court.

“It will be business as usual in terms of courts hearing and determining matters, but there are changes around processes to achieve that.”

While measures have been put in place to protect the public and criminal defendants from the spread of the virus, Mr Kukulies-Smith says he is working with the courts to make it as safe as possible for legal practitioners as well.

In my role as chair, I’ve been meeting with the registrar and acting Chief Magistrate, the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Legal Aid office to work through possible practice changes to support social distancing in the Magistrates Court.”

People summoned for jury duty, and those who are selected to be jurors, will be subject to social distancing measures between panel members, jurors, and others where each person will have to sit at least one seat apart from each other. These rules also apply to members of the public and public access may be restricted further should conditions change, the ACT Supreme Court said.

Michael Kukulies-Smith

Michael Kukulies-Smith, one of Canberra’s top criminal lawyers, says it is imperative that the courts continue to function throughout the pandemic. Photo: Supplied.

However, if you are in quarantine or self-isolation and get called up for jury duty, you must notify the sheriff’s office and you will not be required to attend court.

People who are subject to a summons, subpoena or other compulsory processes should not attend court if they are required to self-isolate and should contact the registry team in advance.

“The court is reviewing its procedures on a daily basis and our response to the outbreak could change at short notice. At the moment, we do not envisage the suspension of all court services, but this could well change,” it said in a statement.

In NSW, the Local Court – which heard over 330,000 criminal cases at over 140 locations last year – has said that where possible all persons in custody will appear by video or audio link as magistrates will not issue an order mandating that an accused offender physically appears in court.

Defendants can lodge a guilty or not-guilty plea by email or in writing instead of physically appearing in court. Sentencing will not require attendance unless the magistrate considers it an absolute necessity for serious cases.

People who need a domestic violence order will also not be required to appear in court unless the hearing is fixed, while arguments in civil proceedings will be limited to under 15-minutes.

While current jury trials will go-ahead in NSW, the Supreme Court and District Court have suspended new jury trials while they work towards implementing a new empanelment process and limiting the close contact between jurors during a trial.

However, where a jury has already been selected and empanelled, the trial will go ahead. There will be no disruption to judge alone trials, bail applications, and civil trials, the NSW Supreme Court said.

For information on how coronavirus is affecting courts in the ACT, visit ACT Courts.

For more information on coronavirus and self-isolating, visit the Health Directorate.

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