The Chief Magistrate Judge Graeme Henson has announced a raft of new measures for the Local Court to mitigate risk of infection during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Local Court is the largest trial jurisdiction in Australia with more than 330,000 criminal cases dealt with by NSW magistrates in 2019 at over 140 locations.
Judge Henson has been working closely with stakeholders including the Office of Director of Public Prosecutions, Legal Aid, the Sheriff’s Office, Department of Communities and Justice, Corrective Services, NSW Health and the NSW Police Force to address the issue.
Judge Henson said the health and wellbeing of all court users is a major priority which is why he is implementing the follow steps to reduce the risk to the exposure to the virus in courthouses across the state.
- Visitors who are not involved in proceedings should stay away from court complexes.
- Wherever possible all appearances by persons in custody, whether from a Correctional centre or a police station are to be by Audio Visual Link technology. Magistrates will not issue orders requiring the physical presence of a person in custody before the court.
- List matters that are currently pending before the Local Court but aren’t listed for hearing or sentence, can be dealt with electronically. If a person is legally represented this will be considered a physical appearance if it is communicated clearly to the court.
- The first return date in matters where the defendant is not legally represented may also be dealt with by email. It must state clearly the reason they are requesting an adjournment. Parties can access email addresses under the court locations section at www.localcourt.justice.nsw.gov.au.
- Defendants who are unrepresented and wish to enter a plea of guilty can notify the court by email or by post. They will not be required to attend court for the sentence unless the presiding magistrate considers the offence is serious and therefore attendance is required. If this is the case, the court will adjourn the matter and advise the defendant in writing. Wherever possible defendants should provide an email, residential address and mobile number so the court can communicate with them.
- A legal representative or unrepresented defendant may advise the court by email or by post if they have entered a guilty plea. The court will make orders for service of the brief of evidence if required and advise the legal representative or defendant electronically.
- At the return date of the brief of evidence, the legal representative or the defendant may advise the court by electronic means whether a plea of not guilty is maintained. They also need to provide a range of dates they are available for the matter to be heard. The court will deal with this information in the absence of the legal representative/defendant and inform them of the hearing date.
- The usual arrangements under the Court’s Practice Direction for applications to vacate a hearing date will continue to operate. These do not require the attendance of a party unless the court directs an appearance.
- The court will be cautious in dealing with matters in the absence of a defendant. If there is no appearance by a defendant and no communication as to the approach to be taken in relation to the matter proceedings will be adjourned until a date in June. The court will advise the defendant.
- In relation to domestic violence proceedings, the court will NOT REQUIRE the attendance of a protected person in respect of any application brought by police for a Domestic Violence Order unless they are fixed for hearing.
- The legal representative of a defendant who has a matter listed for a defended hearing is to consult with their client and seek instructions regarding their intention. Where there is a change of plea the court is to be notified electronically or by post. This is to remove the need for witnesses to attend.
- Similarly, where the prosecution intends to withdraw proceedings the court is to be notified seven days prior to the listing date to avoid the need for a defendant to attend. In the case of an application for costs, the court is to be notified of this intention and will allocate a date for argument. Notification can be made by post or electronically. Return advice regarding the date for argument will also be in writing or email.
- As for civil proceedings, Notices of Motion and the review list will be conducted by teleconference without the need for the legal practitioner to appear. Any argument by a party is to be limited to no more than 15 minutes.
- The State Coroner will contact families in relation to arrangements that may need to be made for pending inquests or fire inquiries.
- The hearing of matters before an Assessor in the Small Claims division of the Local Court will take place by teleconference. The physical appearance of a party will not be required. This will be reviewed appropriately depending on any change in circumstances.
- At present, the Local Court has set aside the month of October 2020 to catch up on backlogs. At this stage, the court will not list any defended hearings during this month. In addition, the State Debt Recovery Office has agreed not to list any traffic matters in the Local Court between 1 July and 1 October 2020.