We are pleased to see that on Tuesday 28 April the Victorian Government announced a funding boost of $5.2 million to upgrade and digitise Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) processes to enabling more matters, including those under the Planning and Environment Division, to be heard by telephone or video technology.
VCAT closed all face-to-face proceedings in March and since then only urgent matters have been scheduled to be heard over the phone. Planning and Environment related hearings have been postponed along with all other non-essential hearings.
This funding boost will mean that VCAT can upgrade their systems to allow for fully digital operation. The upgrades will include upgrades in software and digitisation of paper files, most importantly allowing for a broader range of matters to be heard online. The software upgrade will include an online VCAT portal with video conferencing capability.
Details on how the digital hearings will run are still being developed by VCAT. In VPELA’s Government Emergency Response Measures Webinar held on 30 April, however, some ideas were put forward. At this stage the hearings will be run using a combination of existing and new technologies. VCAT have indicated the use of the program Immediation as a possible solution to the administration costs of facilitating virtual VCAT hearings. VCAT have also indicated an expansion of the over-the-phone capabilities to handle more hearings. It is expected that more details of how the remote hearings will take place will be announced in the coming weeks.
As of now, the hearings that have been scheduled after 15 May 2020 will go ahead as scheduled if deemed appropriate to be heard via telephone, telephone conference or video conference, meaning there are no plans to delay future scheduled hearings. Hearings that were scheduled before 15 May have been triaged and will be assessed as to whether they should be on the phone or with video and visual aids, or alternatively resolved ‘on the papers’, with the agreement of those parties involved. It is expected that these hearings will also be rescheduled in the coming weeks.
Along with this, any new applications which have been lodged over the last six weeks will begin receiving initiating orders which have been delayed due to a reallocation of resources. These matters are anticipated to be listed for 2021.
Getting VCAT back up and running is particularly important in keeping the pipeline of projects moving through this crisis. Planning relies on VCAT to resolve issues and get projects off the ground, so we are glad to see this adaptation in the face of this crisis.
The upgrades are expected to be rolled out over the next 12 weeks and the new digital processes are intended to last beyond the COVID-19 emergency response measures, improving the Tribunal’s capabilities in dispute resolution well into the future.
Additional changes planned within VCAT include: a revamped short cases list (with parameters regarding this to be announced shortly), Major Cases list will no-longer automatically get a practice day hearing and justification for one will need to be provided by the Applicant, and all objector applications will be listed for a compulsory conference. These mechanisms are intended to expediate the resolution of matters and improve the Tribunal’s processes.