Covid-19 has affected all facets of the economy as well as how we interact with each other day-to-day. The Victorian Planning system is of course no exception. At a Council level, planning permit applications are still moving through the usual milestones with some adjustment to processes (i.e. no objector consultation meetings) and decisions are generally taking a few weeks longer than they had before.
VCAT on the other hand effectively came to a standstill during March and April. Anyone who has been to a VCAT hearing would recognise that the interactions between parties are integral to the Hearing process and social distancing rules have prevented the traditional hearing format from continuing. No Initiating Orders were being issued and hearing dates that had already been scheduled were postponed.
Stopping Hearings altogether for any length of time obviously will have a significant impact on the construction industry which relies on timely approvals. To get VCAT moving again, the Victorian Government announced $5.2 million funding which is being used to implement up-to-date software and to digitise a number of processes. Online hearings re-commenced on May 18 however they have been limited based on the complexity of cases and the number of parties involved.
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Since the funding announcement on 28 April, Keen Planning has received initiating orders that provide options for hearings not on the Major Cases list to either take place sometime next year or to accept a hearing “on the papers”, meaning each party provides a written submission for a Tribunal Member to consider and make their decision.
Having a hearing take place purely “on the papers” could be seen to be appropriate for simpler projects however our view is that for more complex cases, it limits the opportunity to most effectively articulate your arguments to best represent your client.
We have reviewed each VCAT case we are currently responsible for and in consultation with our clients have weighed up the relative merits of a quicker hearing time versus the need for a longer wait for a more familiar process. The Tribunal has also introduced Zoom hearings which has been well received by a number of users. It is positive that these changes have been implemented and look forward to seeing how these new technologies may be integrated into VCAT in the long term.