COVID time has been, and continues to be, an extraordinarily disruptive period for QCAT.
The steps which needed to be taken to safeguard members, registry staff and the members of the public who access QCAT had a very significant impact on our ability and capacity to deliver frontline civil justice services.
In-person hearings were cancelled. The range of hearings we could conduct remotely (ie: by telephone) was limited. We had to reconfigure our premises to allow for the necessary social distancing.
We had to respond to a range of urgent COVID-19 legislation, including the emergency measures relating to residential tenancies. We had to work out ways of making it feasible for our QCAT people – members and registry staff – to work from home wherever possible.
An outsider reading those comments might legitimately ask: “Well, surely that wasn’t too difficult in the year 2020, with all the technology that’s available to you?”
That outsider, unfortunately, doesn’t realise that:
- QCAT remains a largely paper-based registry; and
- The electronic file management systems which QCAT “inherited” 10-years ago are hopelessly out of date.
These factors compounded the difficulties QCAT faced in dealing with COVID time.
We were told to have people work from home. For most of our registry staff, that simply wasn’t feasible. You can’t “work from home” on a paper file which is sitting in the CBD. Special arrangements had to be made to allow members to take files home. That is more serious than it sounds. Each file is the record of each proceeding. It is the only record. There is no back-up.
Emergency measures to facilitate the public’s remote access to the Tribunal, such as allowing material to be lodged by email, actually added to our work pressures – all of those emails had to be printed and placed on the physical files.
These are just a few examples of the practical issues we had to deal with in trying to run an organisation that was never set up to operate remotely and has never been given the capacity to work in that way.
The Department of Justice and Attorney-General (DJAG) is presently funded to pursue an “ICT Strategy Implementation Program”. QCAT’s IT requirements are just one component of that program.
We are grateful that one of the initial headline projects in the program is Minor Civil Disputes, which is our numerically largest jurisdiction, and one which we share with the Magistrates Court. That will go some way to addressing the sort of issues I have been describing.
But there is so much more that needs to be done across QCAT’s broad array of jurisdictions if it is to have the capacity to operate as a 21st century Tribunal.
Much of the technology to achieve that capacity already exists in the open marketplace. But achieving that capacity will need the necessary commitment from Government.
It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of one Tribunal don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
We at QCAT understand that the Government must balance competing priorities across its portfolios. We understand the enormous social and economic impacts wrought by COVID – we see the fallout of those impacts on everyday Queenslanders every day in our community-based jurisdictions.
We understand that it is not possible to wave a magic wand to provide an overnight solution for improving QCAT’s ability and capacity to deliver essential civil justice services to the community. But it needs to be understood that delay in facilitating the delivery of 21st century justice services at QCAT will have real and palpable consequences.
The severe limitation on QCAT’s capacity to hear cases during COVID time has left us with a backlog in many of our jurisdictions. Without any enhancement of our capabilities, that backlog will become a perma-log. The timeframes within which matters will be able to be heard and determined will inevitably blow out.
The public, along with Tribunal members and registry staff, will become dissatisfied with QCAT’s diminished capacity to deliver essential justice services. All of that is anathema to QCAT’s statutory mandate to deal with matters in ways that are accessible, fair, just, economical, informal and quick.
In the meantime, QCAT will continue to do its best within its constrained resources. But, as appears from the statistics in this report, the number of cases coming through the door is increasing.
Many of the cases are becoming more complex. The constrained resources can only stretch so far.