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Courts respond to pandemic

State and federal courts have introduced measures in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Queensland, Chief Justice Catherine Holmes AC and District Court Chief Judge Kerry O’Brien announced on 16 March that all new trials requiring a jury would be suspended as a precautionary measure.

Criminal trials that had already started before a jury in the Supreme Court or District Court would continue until their conclusion.

The statement said that other cases would proceed, but further adjustments to court procedures were being considered, and the courts would continue to monitor advice being provided by government health authorities and act accordingly.

Also, admission ceremonies in Brisbane have been cancelled for the near future, with applications for admission to be dealt with in almost all cases on the papers, so that no representation in court is required.

However, applicants’ presence in court will be required in order to comply with the rules and to allow them to take their oaths of allegiance and of office and sign the roll. For that purpose, only applicants will be allowed into the courtroom. Candidates not wishing to proceed on this basis should request an adjournment.

When courts resume normal operations, all practitioners admitted in these circumstances will be offered the opportunity to take part in a welcoming ceremony attended by family and friends.

Meanwhile, the Federal Court has introduced a suite of measures to reduce the risk to staff, litigants and the legal profession. Following developments which led to the closure of the Lionel Bowen building in Sydney, the court has vacated all listings up to 30 June that require in-person attendance, including mediations and listings relying on video link from court premises, apart from those specifically and individually excepted by the court.

The court was looking at its capability to facilitate listings by remote access technology and at the time of writing was expected to provide more details on this as soon as possible.

Court users were advised to closely monitor the daily court lists to check which listings are proposed to proceed. More updates will be posted on the Federal Court’s website, fedcourt.gov.au.

The Family Court of Australia and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia have also implemented precautionary measures to minimise the risk to everyone operating within court buildings.

A courts spokesman said that, as of mid- March, all current listings would continue to be heard. However, judges and registrars were being encouraged to hear matters by phone or videoconferencing when appropriate.

The courts were well aware that there were potentially very serious impacts on families if there were extended delays in dealing with family law matters, particularly cases relating to parenting and the living arrangements of children, and cases involving issues of risk and family violence.

Callovers were being staggered in time and distance to ensure that the number of people attending court at any one time was minimised. Future callovers were to be reviewed daily, subject to ongoing medical advice issued by the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer.

The spokesman said the courts were actively reviewing the caseload for the coming weeks and months, and were developing contingency plans to ensure that cases could be prioritised if the current situation escalated.

Inquiries could be directed to the national enquiry centre, enquiries@familylawcourts.gov.au or phone 1300 352 000.

Updated information would be posted at familycourt.gov.au/wps/wcm/connect/fcoaweb/home and federalcircuitcourt.gov.au/wps/wcm/connect/fccweb/home.

This story was originally published in Proctor April 2020.

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