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Changes forced on government agencies by pandemic to have long-term benefits

Changes forced on government agencies by pandemic to have long-term benefits

By Karin Derkley

Administrative Tribunals COVID-19 

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The future looks more efficient for VCAT, the Fair Work Commission and the ACCC after COVID-19 forced beneficial innovation on them, the LIV Government Lawyers Conference was told last week.

The government regulators and agencies, swamped with matters and complaints at the start of the pandemic, quickly realised new, remote ways to work which will remain.

The ACCC saw a 10,000 per cent increase in some areas of complaints, the conference heard, while the volume of calls coming into the Fair Work Commission call centre increased by 20 per cent from March 2020. VCAT had to move overnight from being a paper-based operation that hears 85,000 matters a year to conducting hearings via telephone.

Fair Work Commission Vice President Joe Catanzariti said the commission was at the forefront of dealing with the pandemic, with unfair dismissals spiking from 49 per cent of its work before the pandemic to 70 per cent.

The Commission acquired a whole new jurisdiction in the form of JobKeeper, Mr Catanzariti said. " To deal with that jurisdiction we needed to work seven days a week because it would not be fair on the parties to wait a couple of days. We didn't have the ability to increase staffing that quickly. We couldn't increase our resources - we just had to work smarter during the pandemic to meet the needs."

VCAT CEO Mary Amiridis said that on the days following the shutdown, telephone was the only technology available. “We listed only our priority and urgent cases, predominantly in our residential tenancies and guardianship lists, because that's all we had the capacity to hear. Within about nine days we'd heard just over a thousand cases by teleconference."

By May, VCAT had commenced zoom video conference hearings, mediations, and compulsory conferences. Within another three months the tribunal had entirely digitised the planning and environment list, a project that had previously been expected to take years.

ACCC Executive General Manager Marcus Bezzi said the commission saw an increase of up to 10,000 per cent in some areas of complaints as a result of the pandemic and the ensuing lockdowns, particularly from those seeking refunds for air flights, gym memberships, holidays.

"There was really very little we could do because we'd look at the terms and conditions of the companies offering the services and it was clear that in extraordinary events like a pandemic they could not offer refunds. They could just retain money that had been paid."

To help complainants, the ACCC took on an additional role as an advocate for consumers to persuade businesses, including some of the major airlines and gyms and holiday providers and accommodation providers, to offer refunds.

Another crucial role was supporting supermarkets to ensure reliable distribution of supplies, particularly at the beginning of the crisis. "Supermarkets were telling us they couldn't reliably get supplies. It wasn't just toilet paper, there were many other disruptions in the supply chain. They needed to coordinate and to be able to do that, they needed us to authorise them under the Competition and Consumer Act."

This had to be done at great speed. "We had 30 urgent applications from 30 different industry sectors and applications that often take place over six to 12 months we had authorised within 24 to 48 hours."

The ACCC also acted to ensure that powerful players in the market, such as airlines, did not use the crisis as a way of strengthening their market power. "When Virgin failed, our chairman was out there putting a very strong public position that there was a need for the government to take action to ensure that our second domestic airline survived," Mr Bezzi said.

VCAT was thrown into the deep end after the Omnibus Emergency Measures Legislation established a ban on rental evictions and rent increases and a new dispute resolution process was introduced with Consumer Affairs Victoria. "We had to work very quickly and closely with them to establish the processes that sat around those changes and the matters being considered by consumer affairs before they were referred to VCAT," Ms Amaridis said.

An interesting long-term outcome was that remote hearings have helped facilitate increased access to justice for applicants, particularly those who are self-represented and in regional areas, she said. "The future looks very different for VCAT and we will never go back to being an entirely face-to-face operation. We will continue to hear matters remotely, some by phone, some by video conference some in person and a combination of all three."

Mr Catanzariti said that even while parties prefer face-to-face interactions, the pandemic showed it was possible to deal with matters electronically. "We will not go back to 100 per cent face to face. The world really has moved on and we have to look at what is the best way of giving the best access to justice."

Each of the agencies also expect that remote working will continue even once the pandemic is finally over, given that it had been shown that staff could operate efficiently and productively from home. "We've been incredibly surprised at the level of productivity of our staff and our teams," Mr Bezzi says. "They are absolutely as productive, and probably more productive in some areas when they're working from home."

At the Fair Work Commission there is also an acceptance that people will work from home some part of the week on an ongoing basis, Mr Catanzariti said. "It is working. Each unit will have to develop its business case how it's going to operate from home, but it has actually increased the job satisfaction to some extent because people can work out how they're going to balance that out."

Pictured: Marcus Bezzi, Mary Amaridis, Joe Catanzariti


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