On March 18, our office attended a webinar presented by the Victorian Planning and Environmental Law Association at which the Deputy Present of VCAT – Teresa Bisucci provided an update on how VCAT adapted, and is continuing to adapt, in response to COVID19 pandemic restrictions.

The key points to come out of the briefing are as follows.

  • The current feedback VCAT are receiving is that uses do not want to go back to face to face hearings. This is the total opposite to the feedback they received in the early application of virtual VCAT hearings. Our office has mixed feelings about online hearings; however, one benefit is the time savings in avoiding traveling to and from King Street.
  • VCAT have completely transformed their operations/processes to become paperless. This has improved efficiency and reduced the chances of something being missed or lost. One of the key aspects to ensuring that the new automated system works efficiently/correctly is however reliant on applicants/parties using and fully completing the new electronic forms.
  • VCAT listed a staggering 400 additional hearings between June and December 2020 to clear the backlog created when all hearings were adjourned at the start of 2020. This has resulted in a significant reduction in delays with hearings.
  • VCAT have introduced a requirement for attendance at a Compulsory Conference to all Section 82 applications (Objector Appeals) with the intention to expand the option of a Compulsory Conference to every appeal. Currently 50 percent of Compulsory Conferences are reaching a resolution and avoiding the need for a hearing.
    We see the expansion of the use of Compulsory Conferences as a very positive step as in our experience with the assistance of a VCAT Member pushing the parties to agree, settlements can be achieved even when prior to the hearing an agreement seems most unlikely.
  • Priority is currently being given to listing and holding hearings which has unfortunately resulted in delays in VCAT members preparing and issuing their decisions.
  • Moving forward when restrictions lessen, and we get back closer to ‘normal life’, VCAT still believe that the virtual hearing will remain as an option as it means the number of hearings that can be held is far greater and is not restricted to the number of physical rooms at King Street.
  • One of the final points made was that if you are presenting at a Hearing do not read out your submission – only focus on the key areas. You can be assured that the Member has already read your entire submission prior to the hearing so the last thing they want is to sit and listen to you read it back to them.

Overall, we believe VCAT should be commended for the way they have evolved and adapted in response to the challenges created by COVID19. The delays in hearings have been substantially reduced, and the emphasis on Compulsory Conferences helps reduce the adversarial nature and emphasis of the process and should result in a larger percentage of users having a more positive experience.

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