Principles for Facilitating Access to Justice for Marginalised and Vulnerable Groups as a Result of the COVID -19 Pandemic
12 June 2020
Marginalised groups face formidable systemic and personal barriers in accessing justice. This is despite the fact that these groups are disproportionately represented in the legal system, often being more vulnerable to multiple civil and criminal legal problems and having greater and more complex legal needs than the general population.
The COVID-19 pandemic has seen the introduction by Australian governments of far-reaching public health and emergency management responses, including in the form of restrictions on gatherings and movement. The community has been required to adapt to a new reality based around social distancing, and to new restrictions on gatherings and movement.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also seen the rapid introduction of remote hearings by Australian courts and tribunals. By mid-March 2020, most courts were moving to delay hearings in all but the most urgent cases. Subsequently, most Australian courts have begun to utilise digital solutions to allow remote or ‘virtual’ hearings. As noted by McIntyre, Olijnyk and Pender, ‘the speed with which the judiciary and the profession have managed to adjust to the digital-only landscape is striking.
These public health and emergency management responses, and the movement to online courts and dispute resolution mechanisms, have presented particular risks and challenges, as well as opportunities for the delivery of justice to marginalised and vulnerable groups. In terms of risks and challenges, COVID-19 has significantly impacted the availability and delivery of legal and justice services in the community.
Public health and emergency management restrictions on gatherings and movement have made it more difficult for the legal system to reach people at risk, whilst at the same time increasing the need for marginalised and vulnerable groups to have effective access to legal advice, representation and oversight in order to ensure the protection of their rights. COVID-19 has also tested the principle of open justice in Australia, with the rapid shift to online or ‘virtual’ courts and tribunals curtailing the ability of the general public and the media to access hearings.