Calling for better support during COVID-19

Based on our experience working with people and community organisations responding to COVID-19, we’re calling on the Victorian Government to improve communication about restrictions, provide more support for people at risk of homelessness, and reduce the compliance burden for community organisations.

Through our work, we’ve seen the ways that governments can better support people during times of crisis. Here are our recommendations to the Victorian Government on ways it can improve its response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Governments need to improve communication about restrictions

Recommendation 1: Communicate changes to directions clearly, consistently and as early as possible

We recommend that, where at all possible, when changes to directions are agreed upon (inside or outside of the National Cabinet process), the Victorian Government:

  • Communicates any proposed changes clearly and widely – in multiple formats and translated into languages spoken across Victoria – at least 24 hours before the changes come into effect.
  • Produces and keeps updated a comprehensive set of FAQs that accurately reflect the directions.
  • Announces any changes to restrictions once a draft of directions has been agreed upon and publishes guidance about the new directions online as the changes are announced publicly.
  • Publishes the new directions online at least 12 hours before they take effect. This will ensure Victoria Police, lawyers and the community better understand their effect and can raise any concerns before enforcement begins.

Recommendation 2: Create clear pathways for community feedback

We urge the government to establish forums to enable clear avenues for community and legal community sector feedback and engagement on changes to directions. This could be by:

  • Establishing responsive processes tailored to the needs of different parts of the community that allow the public to ask questions about the restrictions.
  • Establishing a community sector-wide response taskforce that can quickly respond to and support government actions in a crisis, including the community legal sector, community support services, community health sector and Victoria Police.

Recommendation 3: Victoria Police take an educative approach to the enforcement of restrictions

We recommend that Victoria Police:

  • Provide guidance to officers to take an educative approach to issuing fines and warnings and use enforcement action as a last resort, after people are given adequate opportunity to understand the new restrictions.
  • Collect and publish data on the enforcement of restrictions, including:
    • Specific data when police stop, question or issue a warning to a person regarding public health restrictions, including officer details, perceived race/ethnicity, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander status, reason for stop, location, time and outcome of stop.
  • Regularly make available de-identified datasets on the locations and circumstances of COVID-19 related stops, fines and enforcement measures taken, allowing for the data to be analysed and cross-referenced with demographic data by an independent body. This could be IBAC, VEOHRC, Victorian Ombudsman or Crime Statistics Agency.

Better support for not-for-profits

Recommendation 4: Regulators must issue statements early

Victorian regulators should issue supportive regulatory approach statements that reduce non-essential compliance obligations so not-for-profit organisations have timely notice of changes to their legal obligations.

Recommendation 5: Fix fundraising

The Victorian Government must legislate reform to ensure a fit-for-purpose, nationally consistent fundraising regime using the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission as the centralised ‘one stop shop’ for reporting and registration.

Recommendation 6: Protect volunteers returning to work

The Victorian Government should task the Victorian Managed Insurance Authority, working in collaboration with Volunteering Victoria and Justice Connect, with providing options for COVID-19 volunteer protection to support the safe return to the workplace for Victorian volunteers.

Recommendation 7: Accessible checks for screening volunteers

To support the fluid deployment of properly screened volunteers, fund the development of a platform that enables volunteers to obtain, keep updated and prove their police and Working with Children checks.

Recommendation 8: Harmonise Working with Children and other checks

Work with other Australian governments to fast-track national harmonisation of Working with Children Checks and the establishment of a national database for checking their on-going status. 

Increase support for courts and court users

Recommendation 9: Coordinate communication of essential information on the operation of courts and tribunals in Victoria in times of emergency

We recommend that Court Services Victoria is resourced and supported to develop a crisis response framework that can be activated in times of emergency to coordinate communication of essential information, including online, on the operation of courts and tribunals across Victoria, which is accessible to all court users including unrepresented parties.

Recommendation 10: Support courts and tribunals to undertake user-centred digital transformation and ensure technology for the remote conduct of proceedings is widely embedded and accessible

We recommend that the Victorian Government fund and equip Victorian courts and tribunals to take a user-centred and accessible approach to digital transformation, to ensure courts can operate at full capacity, remotely, during COVID-19 and the long-overdue modernisation of the courts. We urge courts to ensure that digital transformation considers the needs of the wide range of court users, so that technology and processes are accessible to everyone. We encourage courts and tribunals to consider best practice approaches and learn from progressed jurisdictions such as the UK.

Protect people from elder abuse

Recommendation 11: Remote witnessing – strengthen safeguards and broaden documents

We urge the Victorian Government to:

  • Retain remote witnessing arrangements beyond the COVID-19 pandemic
  • Allow remote witnessing for the appointment of a medical treatment decision-maker.
  • Increase safeguards for remote witnessing by requiring:
    • Lawyers to initially speak to the principal alone, to permit them to speak freely and confirm they are free of duress, and to check their capacity to make the documents.
    • Where possible, a portable device (such as a smartphone or tablet) should be used by the principal (rather than a desktop computer) so that the witness is able to get a broad visual of the room and anyone else present before witnessing the document.

Support people at risk of homelessness

Recommendation 12: Support people experiencing or at risk of homelessness to stay safely housed during COVID-19

Justice Connect recommends that the Victorian Government:

  • Extend the current temporary COVID-19 tenancy protections until 31 March 2021, so tenants can stay securely housed.
  • Extend and create more financial relief for Victorians, so tenants can maintain their rent payments as COVID-19 continues and during the recovery period.
  • Provide more resources for integrated legal, financial and social work services to help with tenancy issues, debts, fines and other compounding issues for at-risk Victorians.
  • Invest in more suitable and safe social housing with supports, as a key part of the social and economic recovery from COVID-19 – we need at least 6,000 new social housing properties each year for ten years, including at least 300 Aboriginal housing units a year.

Fund projects for digital transformation of the legal system

Recommendation 13: Fund and incentivise human-centred digital transformation of the legal system to ensure people can access legal services when face-to-face services are limited

The government needs to take action to incentivise and support faster digital transformation that includes:

  • Addressing system-level issues so that these are not baked into digital solutions.
  • Prioritising the experience of people engaging with the legal system in its transformation (giving at least the same weight, or greater weight, to the needs of people engaging with the legal system compared with the needs of lawyers, judges, service administrators etc).
  • Appropriately balancing investment in back-of-house digital transformation with consumer-facing initiatives.
  • Ensuring that skills and capabilities currently lacking in the legal assistance, court system and legal sector are identified, and that relevant skills and expertise are brought into the sector.
  • Funding solutions that work, including ensuring that appropriately qualified panels and teams are designing solutions, assessing proposals and funding applications, and making resourcing decisions.

Read our submissions

See our submissions related to COVID-19

Submission to the PAEC Inquiry into the Victorian Government’s Response to the COVID-19 Pandemic (July 2020)Download PDF (730 KB)

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