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CLCs experiencing spike in COVID-19 demand

CLCs experiencing spike in COVID-19 demand

By Karin Derkley

Access to Justice COVID-19 Human Rights 

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Community legal services, already dealing with a spike of legal issues because of the COVID-19 lockdown, are now anticipating a spate in inquiries from people who have been fined for breaching COVID-19 measures.

Fitzroy Legal Service CEO Claudia Fatone says the service has been fielding a spike in employment-related inquiries from people losing jobs or having hours cut back during the pandemic, as well as tenancy and visa issues, which she expects will grow as the restrictions continue.

"Around five to 10 percent of our inquiries are currently COVID-19 related and that'll grow once people have gotten over the initial shock of the situation and worked out what that means for them," she says.

"People on visas who aren't eligible for JobSeeker or JobKeeper payments are asking what their options are. Someone contacted us who had left one job for another, but that job was now being delayed so they were technically unemployed."

"Tenants are asking what their landlord can do if they can no longer afford their rent, and we're also finding that the virus is impacting on tenants getting repairs done to properties because COVID-19 is being used as an excuse."

Justice Connect has seen a doubling in visits to its website over the past couple of months with a "significant spike" in inquiries around employment and tenancy issues, Public Interest Law manager Brendan Lacota says.

Already highly active in the digital platform space, Justice Connect has been well-placed to provide online service delivery to deal with the current influx in inquiries, Mr Lacota says. Among those services is the Justice Connect Answers platform, a wholly online digital "drop in clinic", supported by pro bono lawyers providing direct legal advice and simple answers to one-off discrete legal questions. "We'd been working on that for the last nine months and it was just fortuitous that it launched now."

The organisation has also had 15,000 views of its plain language explanations of the COVID-19 restrictions in the past three weeks, reflecting  the lack of clarity in government communication about the rules. "It's particularly troubling for community organisations and not-for-profits. They're really confused about what their obligations and responsibilities are to their clients but also to their volunteers, and about things like annual general meetings," Mr Lacota says.
 
But more resources would be welcome at Justice Connect and community legal services like Fitzroy Legal Service to deal with the anticipated increase in demand for legal help.

Ms Fatone says the new layer of COVID-19 problems has added a further burden to the already overstretched workload. "We were not that well resourced to meet the existing needs before COVID-19, and we are certainly not going to be resourced enough to meet the increased need that's going to come out of this."

That load is likely to be added to by a spate of penalties for infringements of COVID-19 restrictions. In Victoria, police have issued hundreds of fines and warnings to people for breaching coronavirus social distancing laws. Among them have been a professional runner for driving one kilometre to the nearest park, a food delivery driver who had used a carwash, and a disabled man and his carer berated by police for "lounging around" when caught resting on a park bench.

Over the Easter weekend, 26 people who had formed a car cavalcade protest calling for the release of refugees in Melbourne were fined, and the organiser of the protest arrested at his home, charged with incitement and held in custody for nine hours.

Lawyer Jen Keene-McCann, who volunteers with Melbourne Activist Legal Support, says the health crisis should not be used to justify the narrowing of public protest space. "Our concern is that the policing around the state of emergency restrictions doesn’t have an adequate exemption around political communication – and the suppression of a protest that followed the public health directions represents a suppression of the right to express a compassionate political view."

Ms Fatone says many people fined unfairly under the restrictions may not be aware they can challenge the penalties, "particularly vulnerable individuals such as homeless people and others who experience over-policing because they're in public spaces a lot, but who won't often think to challenge a fine".

The covidpolicing.org.au website, which was set up to monitor interactions between police and the public during the pandemic, is providing links to legal support for those who feel they have been unfairly penalised under the laws.

Ms Keene-McCann says many of the reports made to the website were from individuals who thought they were following the restrictions and yet were still approached by police. "This has left people feeling intimidated, whether or not the police threatened fines. That’s unacceptable and a reasonable use of these powers shouldn’t result in that."

"We are concerned that there hasn’t been adequate oversight and guidance as to how the restrictions are being policed and that the longer these powers are in place, the more difficult it will be to roll them back when we come out of the health crisis."


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