20 March 2020

Magistrates Court freezes some final hearings amid COVID-19 threat

| Dominic Giannini
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ACT Magistrates Court

The ACT Magistrates Court will suspend some of its hearings to stop the spread of COVID-19. Photo: File.

The ACT Magistrates Court will suspend and postpone non-essential final hearings for a fortnight from tomorrow (23 March) to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

During this time, the court will still continue hearings on matters like final hearings for defendants who are in custody and applications for protection orders, Acting Chief Magistrate and Chief Coroner Glenn Theakston said.

“The Magistrates Court recognises the unfolding circumstances associated with the COVID-19 pandemic [and] the importance of slowing the spread of the illness; the health and welfare of staff and other court users; and the uncertainty associated with the illness and related preventative measures,” he said in a statement.

“The Court will continue to make efforts to redirect available resources towards matters where criminal defendants remain in custody. We hope that this will reduce the number of defendants on remand who are in custody.”

The court is encouraging people to use emails and tele-services while audio and visual links have been set up to allow parties to appear in court remotely.

During the pandemic, anyone who is required to self-isolate or quarantine does not have to report to the court and instead should contact the registry team in advance, or the sheriff’s office in the case of jury duty.

The ACT Supreme Court said at the start of the week that 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, told Region Media 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.

“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.”

Interim practice directions have been issued that describe how these arrangements work and what parties need to do before their scheduled appearance. Those documents are available on the Court’s website at Courts ACT.

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