VCAT Update – A return to face to face hearings
Eliza Minney, Senior Associate, of our office was part of a small group of industry professionals who participated in a focus group session at the Tribunal last week to discuss:
- The return to face to face hearings;
- Potential technology upgrades to facilitate same; and
- The types of cases which will be flagged for in person hearings.
In short, the takeaways from this session were:
- Electronic hearings are here to stay and we can expect that Practice Day hearings and a number of other hearings will continue to progress in this format in the future, even if others are held in person;
- The Tribunal has worked hard over the last 13 months and is continuing to upgrade its technology, including a move to a paperless file management system named Felix (the (V)CAT). Upgrades are still in progress and are intended to include the provision of technology in hearing rooms which would allow users to connect their private devices and utilize a “screen share” function much like the Zoom feature we have all come to rely on;
- Whilst the Planning & Environment List (and industry) has been fortunate to continue in an online capacity throughout the pandemic, the capacity of in person hearings is not anticipated to return to pre-pandemic levels initially;
- The Planning & Environment List will have a number of hearing/compulsory conference rooms available to it initially across the four Tribunal locations (CBD, Bundoora, Oakleigh and Frankston). We can expect some cases in municipalities closer to the “community” VCAT locations to be contemplated for hearings in those areas in limited circumstances;
- In person hearings will not be “hybrid” hearings (i.e. both face to face and Zoom being used concurrently for a hearing). Nevertheless, the same processes that existed pre-pandemic in face to face hearings for experts who may need to appear remotely will remain, subject to the appropriate Tribunal approvals;
- In terms of the types of matters which will be listed for face to face hearings, this has not been determined given that orders are still being issued for most matters to be heard online. One option is that decision as to whether some currently listed matters are listed for a face to face hearing is made at the end of a compulsory conference where the matter does not settle;
- The listing of a matter for a face to face hearing will be at the absolute discretion of the Tribunal; and
- It is not yet decided whether face to face compulsory conferences will be listed for to objector matters, Major Cases matters, a combination of both.
Whilst at present, Practice Day hearings are publicly available and people can call the Registry to request links to same (i.e. to facilitate the continued learning/development of junior planners/lawyers/Council officers in our industry) discussions were held in relation to ways this may be further facilitated (i.e. use of the Webinar tool on Zoom or links being on the daily list).
All in all, all participants left the session with an appreciation for the efforts the Tribunal has made over the past 13 months to keep our list operating. It is noted that an 500 additional planning and environment matters were listed last year (when compared to the previous year) to ensure those hearings which were adjourned as a consequence of the initial Tribunal closure due to the pandemic were heard within a reasonable timeframe. This was done without any additional VCAT Members being added to the list of members.
The move to an online filing of applications, amended plans and other matters is a positive and welcomed step which will see the Planning and Environment List continue to work expeditiously and efficiently.
We are excited to return to face to face hearings (albeit in a limited capacity) and to reconnect with peers in person.
Of course, if there are any queries in relation to the return to face to face hearings or regarding your planning and environment related matter generally, please do not hesitate to contact our office.
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