Justice Legislation Amendment (System Enhancements and Other Matters) Bill 2021 - Legislation

04 March 2021

I too rise to speak on the Justice Legislation Amendment (System Enhancements and Other Matters) Bill 2021. This bill certainly builds upon our government’s efforts to make our justice system more resilient to the challenges posed by COVID. More recently we extended these conditions as part of the COVID omnibus bill, late last year. These measures were put into place to make our courts more COVID safe and to ensure that our justice system could work throughout the pandemic. The pandemic is not over yet—we might be rolling out the vaccines—and this means that the need for these measures is also not over. It also means that we need to extend the legislation to extend these COVID procedures, which are set to lapse on 26 April, for a few more months. But from what we have seen over the last couple of months, these emergency measures have worked, and they have worked quite well throughout the pandemic. It is not just us—our government—saying this; that is what we are hearing from lawyers, from judges and from court officials who are working with these arrangements.

Now, changes like allowing virtual court sessions, allowing fitness trials to be decided solely by a judge and electronic signing and remote witnessing of documents are just some of the changes that were brought in as part of our COVID measures. What they have actually done in fact is allow our courts to run more smoothly and act more flexibly. More importantly, what we know is that these initiatives have helped to make our court system much more accessible to so many more Victorians. Not only have these things worked during COVID; they also have the potential to make a justice system so much more efficient in the long term. That is why this bill looks to make a number of these emergency measures a permanent feature of our judicial processes, because Victorians deserve to have greater access to their courts and have their disputes resolved, most importantly, on time.

This is why it was so disappointing to learn that while we are getting on with these changes, the federal government has abolished the family court. I note this because our government, the Andrews Labor government, has made incredible strides in tackling domestic and family violence. It is an absolute shame that the commonwealth’s changes will make it harder for these people that we are working so hard to help to get the justice that they deserve. At a time when our courts are facing incredible backlogs, now is not the time to be cutting resources and leaving our judges under-resourced.

Back many moons ago, when I was a law graduate, I worked as a judge’s associate in the District Court of Queensland. We would travel around south-east Queensland and we would hear cases, day in and day out, but that still was not enough. So it does not surprise me that even despite these changes, this pandemic has created backlogs in our courts and in our tribunals, in particular VCAT. That is why our government has announced an $80 million justice recovery plan to help speed up the backlog of disputes outside of court, to support Victorians with more remote hearings and to hear more cases through more judicial resources and temporary courts.

Now, I would like to take a moment to reflect on the success of virtual courts over the last year. This is a practice that has been employed by several jurisdictions, both in Australia and across the world. I will admit I did find it quite amusing when I saw a video of a lawyer from the US who struggled to work out how to remove a Zoom filter and conducted his proceedings while looking like a cat—absolutely bizarre, but indeed quite amusing. But for the most part, let us be honest, virtual and remote court sessions are something that Victorians have gotten quite used to. This is why this bill will allow remote hearings to remain a part of our court processes even after COVID. This should not be too surprising because the technology is already used to some extent for court processes. We use video-linking to hear witness testimonials, for instance. The change to remote hearings is not going to be too much different in this regard, and going forward I imagine it is something we will see a lot more of.

A particular benefit of the bill will be reducing travel times—transporting detainees from correctional facilities, youth justice facilities and police precincts to physically appear at courts when it is appropriate to do so. Of course some processes will still have to be physically conducted in court, and they will be. But I think these cases will be able to be heard much more efficiently by giving our courts greater flexibility. That is exactly what we have done in the past year with these COVID measures, and this bill is going to make sure that that is what will continue to happen.

Now, another key feature that I am pretty enthusiastic about—it is something that I learned to do during COVID—is electronic signing. These measures have allowed lawyers and witnesses, parties and court officials to sign documents, whether it is a will, a deed or an affidavit, without actually having to be in the same room or in a courthouse. For communities like mine, we are not always within a reasonable driving distance from our major courts, and indeed there are many people in my local community requiring documents to be signed who in fact do not have a drivers licence or a car.

Our closest court is the Werribee Magistrates Court. It is still a while off before we get what will be our fabulous, brand new, $273 million justice precinct, which our government funded in last year’s budget. There are a lot of situations in which people need to access a higher court in Melbourne’s CBD. As an example, the probate office, which people access for wills, is designated in the Supreme Court. For outer suburban communities like mine, this will make it easier in situations to get legal documents signed without even having to travel to the Werribee CBD at the very least or having to go all the way in to Melbourne’s CBD, especially if it is just for a signature. That is part of how you make courts more accessible to people, and I am pleased to see that this change will be made a permanent feature of our court processes. This will make a world of difference to how people go about accessing our courts—people in communities like mine as well as outer suburban communities, not to mention regional and rural Victoria, where families will benefit from this change.

Another key feature that this bill deals with is our COVID measures relating to child reunification orders. I have to say I was pretty horrified that when we first introduced this measure last year it was subject to a misinformation campaign about our government’s omnibus bill. People were led to believe that these changes meant that our government was going to take children away from conspiracy theorists. I took phone calls and I had emails from concerned people who had heard about it through Facebook. They contacted my office, and they were really frightened, anxious and scared that their children would be taken away from them because they disagreed with us on COVID restrictions. That was the fear campaign that those opposite peddled with the help of their mates in groups like Reignite Democracy Australia. And why is this relevant? Because that is the problem of pandemic politics—simple legislation like this bill gets caught up in a cloud of misinformation. The reality was that that measure had nothing to do with taking kids away from people at all—not at all. It was in fact doing the opposite by keeping families together, giving parents more time to get their acts together so that families could be reunited, keeping vulnerable kids out of the foster care system.

As a result of this bill, parents who are doing everything they can to get their kids back in their lives now have an extra six months to prove that they are a fit and proper parent—that is 30 months in total—if they can prove that they have been affected by COVID, because we want families to be reunited. We do not want kids ending up in the foster care system for the rest of their childhood, and that is why we want to help parents as much as we can to get their lives back on track and get their kids back in their lives.

This bill takes in a number of successful COVID measures that we know have worked really well in our court system, and it keeps them in place to improve access to our justice system. In doing so they will most certainly help our government reduce the backlogs in court and create a much more efficient justice system that, most importantly, works for more Victorians. That is why I commend the bill to the house.