March 27, 2020

COVID-19 Australia: Courts, commisions and tribunals considerations

In response to the evolving impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Queensland, Commonwealth Courts and Tribunals, and the High Court have implemented a range of changes to court operations.

Supreme Court of Queensland

For civil matters, the Courts are attempting to minimise the need for physical attendance in courtrooms by:

  • allowing telephone or video link to make applications and call witnesses wherever possible;

  • hearing applications on the papers where that is feasible; and

  • minimising the number of people attending court for any given matter (by encouraging non-essential persons, such as paralegals, not to attend).

The Court are encouraging lawyers to resolve issues to the greatest extent possible, to reduce the time for which any presence in court is required; and to resolve matters wherever possible.

Enforcement warrants for seizure of property or land will not be executed before 18 June 2020. The registry will not commence the enforcement of any new warrants from 19 March 2020 but any sales that have proceeded will be completed, and any warrants for redirection of earnings will continue. There has been no impact to warrants for delivery of goods or seizure and detention of property, and warrants for charging order or appointment of receiver.

District Court of Queensland

Similar measures are being implemented in the District Court.

Applications can continue to be heard but the Courts are similarly restricting numbers entering a Court room.

The same approach in the Supreme Court to enforcement proceedings is being adopted.

Magistrates Court of Queensland

Magistrates Courts across Queensland are open and hearing trials, with the exception of a few regional courts. However, it is not hearing any applications and all callovers are being conducted on the papers, with all matters automatically being adjourned for a period of 3 months, subject to an application being made for an urgent hearing. All legal practitioners and self-represented parties are able to appear by telephone or other audio visual link.

The same approach in the Supreme Court to enforcement proceedings is being adopted.

Federal Court of Australia

The Federal Court will be contacting parties to determine if proceedings can be conducted on the papers, or by telephone or video link. If not, hearings of those matters will be vacated or adjourned except in exceptional circumstances.

For any proceedings requiring attendance of up to half a day, in person attendance will not be required, and those hearings will be dealt with on the papers or by telephone. For all other matters, parties will be contacted by the Courts to determine which matters are able to proceed. The Court is able to accommodate some longer listings and events, including contested hearings, through the use of remote access and file sharing technology.

Urgent matters will be heard by the relevant duty judge.

High Court of Australia

The High Court of Australia will not be sitting in Canberra or on circuit in April, May and June 2020. The sitting of future hearings will be reviewed in June 2020. However, the Court will continue to deliver judgment and deal with special leave applications as necessary. It will also hear any urgent matters by video link.

Coroners Court

The State Coroner will adjourn all inquest hearings currently scheduled to commence in Brisbane before 30 June 2020.Scheduled inquests in other locations across Queensland will also be adjourned to a date to be fixed after July 2020. The Court will continue to finalise findings and deal with any applications by telephone or video link.

Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT)

The hearings in all non-urgent Minor Civil Disputes which have been listed to be heard from 30 March 2020 will be adjourned to a date to be fixed, or be conducted by telephone hearing or on papers. All Direction Hearings, mediations through the Dispute Resolution Branch, and Compulsory Conferences shall be conducted by telephone form 30 March 2020.

IMPLICATIONS

The Queensland Courts are continuing to operate, within the confines of the COVID-19 restrictions relating to physical distancing.

In general, the Queensland Courts have already been prepared to hear expert witness evidence by telephone or video link. However, the hearing of lay witnesses by electronic means is now being permitted. The Queensland Courts have limited resources available for the hearing of evidence by video link (with such technology being limited to particular Court rooms). As such, it may be that lay witnesses will need to be heard by telephone. This has the potential to impact upon the parties' and the Queensland Court's ability to assess the credibility of those witnesses. It is possible that the hearing of trials may be delayed to allow appropriate witnesses to be heard.

There have also been some changes to enforcement actions, which means that seizures of property or land cannot occur before June 2020. Whilst warrants for redirection of earnings will continue to be enforced, there may be significant changes to the amounts recoverable, due to the number of persons now suffering financial hardship as a result of the closures or restrictions of businesses.

If you have any specific queries or concerns as to how these changes may impact upon existing or future matters, we encourage you to reach out to a member of our team.