Emergency laws proposed in NSW to help combat COVID-19

By Jerome Doraisamy|24 March 2020

NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman on Wednesday introduced an emergency bill to the state’s parliament intended to help prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The COVID-19 Legislation Amendment (Emergency Measures) Bill, introduced on Wednesday to the NSW Parliament, comprises a “broad range” of amendments to existing state laws as part of the Berejiklian government’s attempts to further combat the spread of COVID-19.

The proposed changes include measures across healthcare, justice, corrections, planning, regulation, local government and community services.

Mr Speakman said that the reforms will provide public authorities with the legislative powers they need to respond appropriately to this once-in-a-century crisis.

“The threat posed by COVID-19 is rapidly evolving, and the needs of families, businesses, workers and governments are changing every day,” he proclaimed.

“These temporary measures will help ensure we are ready for any development. If urgent action is required to ensure the health and safety of the people of NSW, this [bill] will [help empower] the relevant experts and public bodies to make tough and swift decisions in the best interests of the community.”  

Health

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Proposed amendments will empower police to take immediate action on suspected breaches of COVID-19 public health orders, Mr Speakman explained, including returning those in breach to their residence or place of quarantine.

“NSW Health will have more flexibility to use private health facilities when urgently required and streamline the establishment of State Vaccine Centres to better manage the flu season and thus, better manage COVID-19,” the A-G’s Department said in a statement.

“The Mental Health Tribunal will be able to conduct inquiries by telephone, adjourn an inquiry for 28 days (up from 14 days) and extend existing community treatment orders for a further three months.”

Justice

Amendments to the Criminal Procedure Act, the Evidence (Audio and Audio Visual Links) Act, the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act and the Jury Act will be tabled with the aim of ensuring that NSW courts can continue to deliver justice with fewer people required to physically attend court, Mr Speakman continued.

“The Supreme and District Courts will have greater discretion to order judge-alone trials reducing the need to summon large numbers of potential jurors. Vulnerable people will be exempt from jury summons,” the statement said.

“A greater reliance on technology, including increased use of [audiovisual] links and pre-recording evidence of key witnesses, will also help maintain social distancing in our courtrooms, as will the extension of provisional Apprehended Domestic Violence Orders from 28 days to six months.”

Corrections

Elsewhere, Mr Speakman argued that amendments to the Crimes (Administration of Sentences) Act will create a power for the governor to make regulations determining a class of offenders for potential conditional release on parole.

“These extraordinary measures are only to be used to respond to the threat of COVID-19, and would allow the Commissioner of Corrective Services to prioritise vulnerable offenders and others who pose a low risk to the community for consideration for conditional release,” the departmental statement read.

“Offenders sentenced for the most serious offences cannot be released under these changes. Any conditional release would be subject to strict parole conditions, as well as any other requirements the [commissioner] considers appropriate, including home detention, pre-approved schedule of movements and electronic monitoring. In addition, the [commissioner] may prohibit or restrict any person from entering or visiting correctional facilities.”

Planning

Amendments to the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act will ensure, Mr Speakman argued, that any development that protects the health, welfare and safety of the community during the pandemic can proceed without the normal development approvals.

Regulation

In response to panic buying and stockpiling, Mr Speakman continued, an amendment to the Retail Trading Act will allow supermarkets to stock their shelves and trade throughout the Easter long weekend and Anzac Day this year, “ensuring food and other essential items are available at standard retail prices”.

“When combined with the decision to lift the supermarket delivery curfew, customers should have greater confidence that essential goods will be available from well-known, trusted suppliers. The [bill] will also protect staff from being compelled to work on these additional days; it will be their choice to work and earn additional income, or to enjoy the holidays,” he said.

Local government

The Local Government Act is being amended to allow councils to hold official meetings electronically, rather than physically.

“The [act] is also being amended to give the Minister for Local Government the power to postpone the September council elections for 12 months, with a possible further extension to 31 December 2021,” Mr Speakman’s statement noted.

Community services

Finally, more than 100,000 Working With Children Check (WWCC) clearances are due to expire in the next six months.

“This includes teachers and medical staff who require a WWCC. Changes to the Child Protection (Working with Children) Act will enable the Children’s Guardian to extend clearances where appropriate to help prevent any disruption to services because of COVID-19,” he said.

Looking ahead

Mr Speakman said the state government is “acting swiftly” to ensure that NSW is as prepared as possible to respond to the evolving threat of coronavirus while also reducing the risk of further transmission in the community.

“Our number one priority is the health and safety of the people of NSW,” Mr Speakman said.

“These necessary changes will mean that essential public amenities can continue to operate effectively while maintaining the wellbeing of our frontline workers and the broader public.”

Emergency laws proposed in NSW to help combat COVID-19
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