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Courts have suspended face-to-face hearings and asked them to be heard via telephone or online, in a bid to follow “social distancing” recommendations and stem the spread of coronavirus in NSW.

As the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) agreed to strict new rules around social gatherings and shut down some types of indoor venues and services in an effort to enforce “social distancing” this week, the legal profession has followed with procedures to limit contact among practitioners, clients and members of the community.

Importantly, legal services, law firms and practices can continue to operate as they are not included on the list of social gathering places that have been restricted.

On Sunday 23 March, the Supreme Court announced via its website that no personal appearances were to be held from Tuesday 24 March onwards. The court said this would apply to all matters “except for exceptional circumstances with the leave of the Chief Justice or head of jurisdiction”.

“It is essential for the wellbeing of the community and the maintenance of the rule of law that the Court continues to operate to the extent possible in the current challenging environment,” the announcement read.

The Supreme Court’s public registry will close from Tuesday 24 March, and the court will require all documents to be filed via electronic means – either via the online court, e-subpoena or online registry. Face-to-face court annexed mediations have been temporarily suspended from Monday, but can proceed by way of teleconference.

All defended hearings in NSW local courts from 23 March to 1 May have also been suspended, and the courts have advised that any hearing scheduled during that time should continue via audio-visual link where practicable.

The Family and Federal Circuit Courts are continuing operations but relying heavily on telephone hearings and video conferencing, as well as e-filing new applications. Both courts have flagged that they will be rolling out the use of Microsoft Teams for use as virtual courtrooms, with trials of the program currently underway. The Federal Court announced it will close public facing counters from Tuesday 24 March.

The High Court last week announced it would not sit through the months of April, May or June, and district trials in the Supreme and District Courts of NSW have been temporarily suspended as the courts review the empanelment process in order to limit close social contact among jurors. Current jury trials in NSW are continuing.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has encouraged workers in all industries and professions to continue where it is possible to follow social distancing guidelines, and to work from home if possible.

“Everyone who has a job in this economy is an essential worker. Every single job that is being done in our economy with these severe restrictions that are taking place is essential,” the Prime Minister said on Tuesday night.

Legal Aid NSW closed its public-facing offices on Tuesday but announced via Twitter that it will continue to operate and provide advice via its phone line 1300 888 529.

Many large law firms are encouraging their teams to work from home and remotely where possible. Meanwhile, the Law Society of NSW has temporarily suspended all events at its premises at 170 Phillip Street, including continuing professional development (CPD) seminars and third-party events.

“The Law Society is continuing to closely monitor the COVID-19 situation and, based on advice from government and health authorities, taking all required action to protect the health and wellbeing of members of the profession, Law Society staff, and anyone accessing 170 Phillip Street,” President Richard Harvey said.

President Harvey urged practitioners to monitor the Law Society’s website page dedicated to COVID-19 updates for the most recent information affecting the legal profession. The President also committed to sending out a “daily update” email newsletter from the Law Society, with the first newsletter sent out on Tuesday evening, summarising relevant and essential COVID-19 information for lawyers across NSW.

“We are living through challenging and unprecedented times. We are being asked to process vast amounts of new information and being forced to adapt to changes unimaginable a few weeks ago,” Harvey said.

President Harvey encouraged lawyers to look to the NSW Department of Health website for the most informed medical advice surrounding coronavirus.

“In considering any possible workplace issues arising from COVID-19, it is important to have access to information from the appropriate sources. To this end, we would refer those in the legal profession to the NSW Health website – which has the latest updates, fact sheets and resources.”

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