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Interview: Year of positive change for Court reformer

Interview: Year of positive change for Court reformer

By Karin Derkley

Courts COVID-19 Interviews 

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Chief Magistrate Lisa Hannan fast-tracked her plan to leverage technology and improve the Court’s access to justice with the COVID-19 lockdowns.

It’s impossible to discuss the Chief Magistrate’s first year at the Court without acknowledging the whirlwind that has been COVID-19. “I came with a reform agenda,” she says, “and then COVID hit.”

COVID-19 and the restrictions brought in to contain its spread have ended up shaping every aspect of the state’s justice system – none more so than the normally bustling Magistrates’ Court in the William Street precinct, but also courts in metropolitan and regional Victoria. 

Before COVID-19 up to 2000 people walked through the door of the court every day. By the end of March that number had dropped by half, and since August it has been down at around 100 a day, mostly police and prosecutors, plus a small number of staff.

But none of the 51 courts across the state have ever closed, something the Chief Magistrate points out with pride. “We are an essential service so there was never a question that we would close even a single court,” she says. “Everybody understood that we had to keep going regardless of what happened.”

Judge Hannan was appointed to head up the Magistrates’ Court just over a year ago. The former solicitor at Galbally & O’Bryan spent 10 years at the Victorian Bar before being appointed to the Magistrates’ Court in 1998. There she carried out extensive work to streamline procedures for handling sexual offences and was responsible for implementing the specialist sexual offences list.

She knew she wanted to be a criminal lawyer since she was 12. “I genuinely love the law and most importantly what I like is people and their interaction with the law. Being a criminal lawyer is endlessly interesting. It is about people’s stories. And you hear those stories every single day of your working life.” 

Appointed to the County Court in 2006, she was closely involved with the reform of the operations of the Court under former Chief Judge Michael Rozenes, working on projects including iManage, E-lodgement and the modernisation of case management.

After former Chief Magistrate Peter Lauritsen retired, she was regarded as a highly competent pair of hands to modernise the jurisdiction that is regarded as the people’s court and the entry point for most cases in the state. 

Judge Hannan came to the Court with a reform agenda that included a new governance structure, a community engagement program, adoption of the International Framework for Court Excellence (IFCE), a quality management system designed to help courts improve their performance, and a new court-wide wellbeing plan.

But COVID-19 forced the fast-tracking of her plan to introduce a new operational model to leverage technology that would improve the Court’s access to justice when the first lockdown drastically reduced the number of people allowed in the courts. 

At the time, the Court was still almost entirely paper-based, Judge Hannan says. “We didn’t even have electronic filing.” 

“Suddenly we had to reimagine how we were going to deliver justice in this state.”

Within six weeks the Court had commenced implementation of the Online Magistrates’ Court. “We had magistrates working from their lounge rooms, from their kitchen tables, from their chambers, and in some circumstances in courtrooms, and our staff were doing the same,” she says. 

Judge Hannan is grateful for government funding that supported the wholescale shift to online justice, with magistrates and staff provided with the equipment they needed to seamlessly operate the Court from their homes. “We made a request for a substantial amount of IT equipment to assist our magistrates to hear matters from home and we were provided with that equipment. We received support from Court Services Victoria but also from the wider justice sector.”

The achievement was extraordinary given it came from what was essentially a standing start. “Virtually all hearings are now online and very few people are attending our court buildings.”

Among the exceptions are family violence matters which are still able to be accommodated in in-person hearings. “Not everybody has access to a computer,” she says. “It is not safe for everybody to make a telephone call from home. Some people just need to come in to speak to the registrar and our registrars have been standing there the whole way along.”

The Court’s applicant and respondent workers have been reaching out to speak to applicants to find out whether it’s safe for them to conduct their hearing via WebEx. “If it’s not, they come to a court building or we deal with it some other way.”

Ensuring those held on remand would not have their time in custody unduly extended has been a priority, Judge Hannan says. The number of audiovisual links hearings with those in custody has surged. 

With audiovisual links needing to be shared across all the courts, a cooperative process has allowed each court to prioritise hearing times. Corrections Victoria also built extra video suites and staffed the suites in ways that allowed the courts to have access over longer periods of time during the day. “Everybody worked together in that space,” she says. “We have moved from having about 600 audiovisual links a week to 3500 a week by early November, using a combination of AVL and WebEx.” 

Judge Hannan is also proud of the fact the Court has also pursued therapeutic justice even during COVID-19. The Drug Court, the Assessment and Referral Court (ARC) and the Court Integrated Support Program (CISP) continued, with assessments being conducted with people in custody by telephone. “The question we asked ourselves was: how can we continue?”

In fact, the new mode of interaction has worked better for many who come into contact with the specialist courts, she says. “For instance, in the ARC, which deals with people who often have mental health or cognitive impairment issues, we reverted largely to phone contact. It was really interesting because the reports of the various judicial officers who sat in that list was that the engagement was in some circumstances better. People were more relaxed and happier to discuss the issues that had underpinned their offending.”

At a time of huge uncertainty, one of Judge Hannan’s roles was to keep everyone working within the justice system informed of the multitude of changes. She issued 22 practice directions largely because of COVID-19, each of which represented a significant change within the Court. 

“But you can’t just send out a practice direction,” she says. “You need to make sure you are explaining why the practice direction is required and what the expectations are. 

“I have spoken more times than I care to count over the last few months in relation to practice directions to make sure they are well understood. I have spoken to the LIV, Victoria Legal Aid, to the Bar, to the police and prosecutions.”

All the while Judge Hannan was well aware that the changes forced by COVID-19 were bringing additional pressures on to the Court’s magistrates and staff already burdened by a heavy case load. 

Improving the welfare of judicial officers and court workers was a priority when Judge Hannan was first appointed and the past year has put that objective to the test. “You could not possibly deny that it’s been a challenging year. The pace of change in this Court has been relentless. So that has caused some stress.” She says she and CEO Simon Hollingworth have made a point of encouraging magistrates and staff to access support programs and to take leave, even for short periods of time, given the few options for travel. The Court has set up activities such as the 10,000 steps challenge and implemented programs to keep otherwise isolated magistrates and staff connected. 

“The ability to share the difficult days with your colleagues certainly makes things easier and I encourage the magistrates of this Court to do that, including with me, because it is a way of sharing what is sometimes a burden.

“I have sent a lot of emails and I have had a lot of conversations. I like to just pick up the phone and call my judicial colleagues, somebody who might be at a regional court or at a suburban court. Personal contact is important for all of us.”

Her own mode of coping is to walk. “I walk endlessly. I walk my dog. I walk to and from work. I like the mental space that it creates. I just enjoy walking and I like to just have that piece of separation.”

While the pandemic has been an extraordinarily challenging time for the Court, Judge Hannan has embraced the operational changes it forced, many of which are likely to be adopted long term in some form.

Before COVID-19, for instance, the Court relied on people to approach it to have their matters heard. “But the space we’re in now has us reaching out,” she says. “We send a large number of text messages to tell people to go to our website, not to come to our court building. We provide information in relation to the various sorts of matters that they might have before the court, and help them navigate the different processes depending on if they are regional or they are in Melbourne. 

“And when we reach out we’re able to triage. So in the criminal space we reach out and ask people: have you got a lawyer, would you like legal advice?

“We ask them whether they have received legal advice, and if they’d like to plead guilty or not guilty. Sometimes they want to plead guilty on the papers, they would prefer to send us a short explanation for why they went through the red light or whatever may have occurred and they’re happy to have it determined in their absence.”

One example of improved processes is Practice Direction 17, which requires practitioners to register their criminal matters on EFAS (Electronic Filing Appearance System). The Court then collates that material and calls the firms in one by one to see which cases can be resolved, and what can be brought forward. “We had one firm in yesterday with about 40 matters,” she says. “I think 32 of them turned into pleas that we listed between now and the end of the year in our Online Magistrates’ Court.” 

Judge Hannan can’t imagine ever returning to being a court that doesn’t conduct online hearings. “What the nature of those hearings is, and where the parameters are, are still matters that need to be considered and discussed. But the Online Magistrates’ Court is an innovation that provides greater access to justice for the Victorian community and I cannot imagine that we would be walking back from that.”

The shift to technology-enabled interactions will also make possible changes recommended by the Royal Commission into Family Violence. “When you go back to the Royal Commission, technology was always envisaged but it wasn’t possible. We simply didn’t have the technology to facilitate the recommendations. But that is now possible.”

She is grateful for the “tremendous cooperation” from the profession and the legal community in general and looks forward to the day when she can sit down with everyone to discuss what has worked and what still needs to be improved.

The judge is also looking forward to the day “when we are through the patch we’re in now and we reach a stage where we can have sensible and ongoing conversations about what has worked for everybody. Because just working for the Court is not enough – it needs to work for the justice system as a whole. So I am very much looking forward to those conversations.

“There is never going to be total agreement, but I think it’s important to hear all the perspectives before anybody makes decisions. That’s certainly how I like to operate.

“Despite what has been a challenging year, I know I am 

where I am meant to be, and I am excited about the future of this Court.” ■


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