How Has COVID Impacted Sentencing? (Vic)
The impacts of COVID have been felt in all industries, including the legal profession and the court system. Most plainly it has changed the way that matters are heard, but it has also changed the way that cases are considered in light of the ongoing pandemic’s impact on people, the courts and the prisons. This article summarises some of these changes, including how COVID has impacted sentencing outcomes in criminal matters.
At the start of the pandemic, the courts had no capacity or resources to hear matters remotely. As people were not permitted to attend court in person, the court was not able to hear matters at all. This led to a significant backlog of cases, with which the court system is still struggling.
At the moment, most appearances are still being done remotely via Webex. It is expected that the court is contacted at least two to three days before a listing date to organise this and to let the court know how the matter is likely to proceed. It is important that self-represented people contact the court either by phone or email in advance of any listing date. If obtaining legal assistance such as with Armstrong Legal, our solicitors would be attending to this on your behalf.
If you are required to attend a court event online, you will generally be given a WebEx link and a time to link in. It may be that you are not the only person with that link and that you need to remain on the link for some time before your matter is called. During this time, you should always remain on mute and have your camera off. Only turn your camera on when your name is called and only unmute yourself if you are asked a direct question.
An appearance via WebEx is still a court appearance and it is expected that court etiquette is observed. As such you should avoid having other people around you, be in a quiet area and be dressed appropriately. The link can be accessed through any internet browser on a laptop. If accessing it through a mobile phone, you will have to first download the CISCO WebEx app.
COVID and plea discounts
It is well established that a person who enters a plea of guilty receives a discount on their sentence for taking responsibility for their actions and saving the court the time and resources involved in proving them guilty. The earlier the plea of guilty is entered, the greater the discount that applies. If a person is found guilty, after having entered a plea of not guilty, then they receive no discount.
In light of the impact the pandemic has had on the court system and the backlog it has created, the court has recognised that the entering of a plea of guilty at an early stage carries a greater utilitarian value than usual. Entering a plea of guilty lightens the load on the court system and means there is one less matter the court needs to progress to a time-consuming contested hearing.
The 2021 Victorian Supreme Court of Appeal decision of Worboyes v The Queen established that persons entering a plea of guilty during COVID will receive an even greater plea discount than they would normally.
COVID and sentencing
The courts have recognised that sentences, particularly terms of imprisonment, have become potentially more burdensome to offenders due to COVID. This is due to a number of factors such as:
- the restrictions on visitors, which mean that a term of imprisonment may be more burdensome without the support of friends and family;
- the greater risk of infection with COVID in custody. It has been recognised that the perceived increased risk of COVID would weigh heavily on prisoners, especially those of advanced age or with underlying medical conditions, although to this date this has been managed well without major outbreaks;
- the reduced availability of rehabilitative and other programs in prisons that ordinarily enable time in custody to be of some benefit;
- the more isolated nature of prisoners during COVID, especially with quarantine time. This is recognised as being especially onerous to people in custody for the first time and those with existing mental health diagnoses such as anxiety and depression.
It is important that when entering any plea of guilty, all personal circumstances are taken into account and raised with the court in a helpful manner, to ensure that the sentence ultimately imposed is appropriate to the specific circumstances of the offender, but also the time during which the plea of guilty is entered.
If you require legal advice or representation in any legal matter, please contact Armstrong Legal.