COVID–19 effects on court process and criminal justice in NSW
Matters adjourned for lengthy periods to reduce numbers attending court
The restrictions put in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic have caused major disruptions to every part of society. Court process and the criminal justice system have not been immune.
All courts have been impacted, with matters being adjourned for lengthy periods to reduce the number of people attending court, to protect court staff and comply with social/physical distancing regulations.
This article focuses on court process in the Local Court, but each court has information on its individual website about how cases are being dealt with. Some matters in the civil and family jurisdictions are continuing through the use of tele and internet conferencing.
Criminal matters before the Local Court
If you have a criminal matter before the Local Court, you should contact the registry of the relevant court and request an adjournment unless you want the matter dealt with on the day.
You have the option, which has always been available, to have the matter finalised by way of a written pleading. You simply fill out a form confirming you are pleading guilty and make some submissions you think the court could consider in granting you leniency.
This is one way to have the matter dealt with quickly and avoid further delays due to the current restrictions.
However, if you are in doubt as to how you should plead, or if there are things in the police set of facts that you don’t agree with, it is imperative you seek legal independent legal advice.
Remember court staff cannot and should not give you legal advice.
Strict compliance with social distancing requirements in courts
If you need to attend court, strict social distancing measures are now in place. Each court has its own procedure, so it is important to follow the requests of court staff and comply with court process. Some courts are only allowing one matter to be heard at a time and limiting the number of people in court.
If you are bringing support people, not all of them may be allowed in, depending on the individual court’s practice.
MERIT, Legal Aid and section 32 applications
Regular court services, such as MERIT (Magistrate’s Early Referral Into Treatment) for people with substance abuse problems, are not attending courts in person. If you think you are a MERIT candidate, then it would be best to contact the MERIT office in your area to make an appointment for an assessment.
Advice from Legal Aid solicitors is still available, but mainly by telephone. If you think you need Legal Aid, it is best to ring them before court and speak to them about your matter.
Most criminal matters in the Local Court are being adjourned, but you can still ask to be sentenced on your matter or make a section 32 application for diversion into treatment for a mental health condition. (For more information please see Section 32 mental health treatment plans – NSW Supreme Court clarifies requirements.)
Hearing dates vacated but bail applications can still be made
If you have a hearing between now and 31 July 2020, the hearing will be vacated and the matter will be set down for mention sometime in September 2020.
If you are in custody on remand waiting to be tried, your hearing date will be vacated, but the matter will still be mentioned on that date. At that time you can make a bail application. The matter will then be adjourned for a period of not less than eight weeks for mention.
If you need to contact the court, it is best done via email. All court registry emails are listed on the Local Court NSW website.
Risk of COVID-19 in correctional facilities
It has been acknowledged that the risk of coronavirus entering a correctional facility in NSW is high. With the prison population at record levels, any outbreak of such an infectious disease would be difficult to contain.
Bail applications are to be encouraged, as courts are considering full time custodial sentences very carefully during this health crisis. (For more information please see COVID–19 risks to prisoners in NSW – justice delayed is justice denied.)