Delay in the Magistrates’ Court in the COVID-19 Environment

It has long been a frustration of accused persons in Victoria that it can take a long time for their court cases to come to a conclusion, especially if they are pleading not guilty. There are several procedural steps required to contest charges heard in the Magistrates’ Court, such as drink driving, shop-theft, possession of drugs, and assault.

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing major disruption to most aspects of our lives, and the Courts are no exception. Accused persons are now facing even more significant delays than usual in having their cases heard. Indeed, many people who were due to attend court in March and April (and probably May and June) now have no real idea of when they will have their day in court.

The lawyers at Leanne Warren and Associates have conducted several bail applications for Accused persons in these circumstances in recent weeks and are expertly placed to advise you or your family members on the best way to proceed.

The first concession from the Magistrates’ Court that the Coronavirus was going to have a major impact on the summary stream came with Practice Direction Number 3, issued on the 23rd March 2020. This Practice Direction ordered that “All criminal proceedings (except Filing Hearings, Committal Mentions and Committal Hearings) where the Accused is on summons or bail will be adjourned to the nominal date of 15th June 2020”. The notion of a “nominal date” means that thousands of people are in limbo, with no actual date set for their Hearing. This will undoubtedly be causing significant stress – emotional, financial and psychological.

It is even more concerning for those who have been remanded in custody in relation to their charges, especially if they are pleading not guilty. Contested Hearings, where the accused is in custody, were also to be listed on the nominal date of 15th June 2020. Of course, this is not the date that their case will actually be heard, but rather the date that they may be made aware of another future date.

The Magistrates’ Court updated its procedures through Practice Direction no 5, introduced on the 8th April 2020. Now, rather than using the nominal date of 15th June parties are advised that a new date will be issued within 6 weeks.

For persons on remand in custody, these ongoing and unknown delays are unacceptable and may well give rise to an opportunity to seek bail, when previously that was not possible or was unsuccessful. It has been accepted by the courts in Victoria that COVID-19 has caused, and will continue to cause, significant delays, and this is a very important consideration when determining whether bail is appropriate.

For those who are awaiting their court hearing in the community, it is suggested that they contact us for advice on whether their matter may fall into the category requiring “urgent prioritisation”.

The most recent Practice Direction indicates that the court will be willing to consider applications to hear these matters sooner than their new allocated Hearing date, and will accommodate them where possible. Our experienced staff can advise on whether issues such as employment, ill health (physical or mental) or unusual family circumstances may justify their hearing requiring urgent prioritisation.