Shepparton lawyer says COVID-19 a relevant factor in court cases

By Liz Mellino

A Shepparton lawyer has slammed claims made by a Member for Northern Victoria regarding the impact of COVID-19 on the criminal justice system.

Slater and King lawyer Luke Slater said the impact of the global pandemic must be a relevant consideration for all decisions made in the criminal justice system, the same as it has been in every other sector of society.

His comments came after Tania Maxwell renewed calls for community safety to be "prioritised over the interests of prisoners" following recent court proceedings where COVID-19 has been a factor in reduced sentences and the granting of bail.

“People in custody remain members of our society and worthy of our concern,” Mr Slater said.

“Anyone who suggests otherwise is failing to acknowledge the humanity of people in custody.”

In a statement released last week Ms Maxwell said it was "frustrating" that COVID-19 was being cited as a reason for reduced sentences or the granting of bail, despite assurances from the government that legislation implemented to provide flexibility in response to the pandemic was not relaxing sentencing provisions.

She said she believed COVID-19 would not make life "materially worse" in prisons than for anyone else in Victoria and therefore should not be considered a mitigating factor.

Ms Maxwell cited a number of recent cases where offenders accused of serious crimes were released on bail due to likely delays in court proceedings.

“I'm very concerned that serious offenders are being released earlier as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic — this puts our community at increased risk,” she said.

Given Victoria's presumption of innocence model, Mr Slater said it must be acknowledged that a person remanded in custody had not been convicted of the offences for which they had been charged.

He questioned whether Ms Maxwell had visited prisons since the virus outbreak, saying prisoners were spending significantly longer periods of time locked in a cell, were being warehoused without therapy, were facing significant delays in having their matters finalised and were at extreme risk if the virus spread to those in custody.

“It is naïve to suggest that incarcerating people for lengthy periods will make our society safer,” Mr Slater said.

“Prisons are universities of crime and a lengthy attendance rarely serves the prisoner or society ... the vast majority of people sent to prison are ultimately released.”

It appears the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a spike in the number of bail applications being heard, with the Victorian County Court hearing a total of 237 bail applications so far this year, up from 100 at the same time last year.

In April alone, County Court Judges heard 129 bail applications, more than five times the amount in April 2019, and 14 in the first week of May compared to three at the exact time last year.

The statistics are yet to be finalised for the Victorian Magistrates’ Court, however for the month of March it experienced a four per cent decline in the number of bail applications compared to 2019.

Mr Slater said the dramatic increase noted in the County Court was warranted. He said bail applications were necessary at this time given the welfare concerns for any accused person currently in custody.

“I would ask Ms Maxwell to consider that she or someone she loves has been falsely charged with an offence and has been told that her local MP is calling for fewer grants of bail,” he said.

“Wouldn’t it be bizarre if people in custody were the only people in our society for whom the global pandemic is irrelevant?”