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Legal services no longer ‘essential’ in Melbourne

With Melbourne plunged into Stage 4 lockdown yesterday, new ‘stay at home’ restrictions will force many metropolitan ‘legal and accounting services’ to shut their doors from 11.59pm tomorrow, Wednesday 5 August.

Special provisions for certain parts of the justice system will allow the offices of judges, associate judges, judicial registrars, magistrates, and tribunal members to remain open, provided they follow a ‘COVID-safe plan’.

Courts will still hear matters of urgency, including bail, family violence, remand, child protection, warrants and urgent guardianships, human rights, residential tenancies issues or any other priority matters.

However, the announcement has created confusion for firms which don’t service the courts, leaving them questioning whether they are still considered ‘essential services’. And with many Victorian firms practising in litigation as well as commercial law, it’s unclear whether they should continue to offer services at full capacity.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has said the new restrictions will see another 250,000 people forced to stay home or be stood down.

“These are heartbreaking decisions but there is simply no choice,” he said. “The advice from a medical expert is that this is the only way to get these numbers under control, to drive them down low enough so that we can open up again.”

As COVID-19 continues to escalate, the position of the profession appears uncertain in Victoria. However, under Stage 4 restrictions it is clear the Government doesn’t consider legal services generally as an essential service.

What could this mean for Queensland firms?

The first COVID-19 wave presented Queensland practitioners with the question of whether practising law was considered ‘essential’ or ‘non-essential’.

Despite this, during lockdown practitioners saw significant demand for making wills, enduring powers of attorney and advance health directives.

In a letter to Queensland Law Society President Luke Murphy, the Queensland Attorney-General clarified that duties performed by the legal profession were not classified as ‘non-essential’ and Queensland law firms could remain open, provided they adhered to strict social distancing and encouraged practitioners to work from home.

“In short, this means if an activity or undertaking is not identified in the non-essential business closure direction list and your members cannot reasonably perform the task from home, your members may continue to go to work, as long as social distancing is observed,” the Attorney-General said.

“Depending on the specific circumstances, this may mean physically attending a courthouse for a hearing or physical attendance at a property settlement. However, it is important that your members adhere to the CHO’s [Chief Health Officer’s] directions whilst doing so.”

President Luke Murphy said QLS is committed to supporting Queensland practitioners, as well as their Victorian colleagues, during these difficult times.

“We are conscious of the increased difficulties that our Victorian colleagues will now face in maintaining the provision of legal services to members of the public, and businesses who are continuing to organise their personal affairs and conduct their business,” he said.

Today, Queensland has recorded no new cases of COVID-19 for the second consecutive day after three infected women flew back into Brisbane from Melbourne, via Sydney, with police alleging they lied on their border declaration forms.

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