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COVID-19 pushes Australian courts to adopt online dispute resolution

The Federal Court of Australia, the Family Court of Australia, and the Federal Circuit Court of Australia have all responded to the restrictions brought on by the globalCOVID-19 pandemicby adopting online dispute resolution solutions. Melbourne-based Immediation will be providing the courts with an online dispute resolution platform that incorporates video conferencing, hoping to mimic real-life mediation, and hearing sessions.

The arrangement enables the courts to resolve complex commercial and family disputes virtually, Immediation said. The Commonwealth Courts each conducted a series of trials over the last five weeks. The trials saw high-end commercial mediations successfully conducted by Court Registrars with up to 25 participants, including clients, barristers, solicitors, and in-house counsel in virtual attendance.

"Using Immediation, family law matters involving vulnerable participants were able to be conducted more safely using special features of the platform, without any compromise to the matter," the company said. Barrister and Immediation founder Laura Keily said the legal industry is traditionally resistant to the uptake of technology.

"Without technology support right now, thousands of important matters before the courts would be put on hold indefinitely. And frankly, this can't be an option. Too much is at stake," Kelly said. 

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"Today's tragic pandemic has illuminated the crucial importance of technology to the operation of our justice system in a crisis. Technology can not only aid the work we do as legal professionals, but ultimately help us move closer to making justice more accessible for all. 

"This is a positive step forward for the industry and the community as a whole, and I'm hopeful we'll continue to see this approach to resolving justice normalise well after the current health pandemic is over to keep more matters moving forward efficiently."

Immediation said more than 2,000 new users in over 30 countries accessed its platform for live court matters in April.

Immediation touted its platform was built by former Google engineers and leading UX designers, making it secure and user-friendly. "The Federal Court has worked with an array of the latest technologies over many years and this is one more helpful addition. The experience and expertise gained has provided the agility needed to immediately address the impact of the pandemic," the Federal Court of Australia added.

"We are continuing to conduct virtual hearings, many of which are accessible to the public, as well as online mediations and conferences, and have put in place a range of other measures to allow the court to function as near to normal as possible."

Last month, the NSW government granted the ability for video conferencing platforms, such as Skype, WhatsApp, FaceTime, and Zoom to be used for the witnessing of important legal documents like wills, powers of attorney, and statutory declarations.

The new temporary regulation, made under section 17, opens a new window of the Electronic Transactions Act, to help reduce face-to-face contact during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Thousands of legal documents are executed every day in the presence of one or more witnesses, but COVID-19 restrictions have made it difficult for many people to do so in person," NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman said at the time.

Under the new regulation, a witness must still see a person signing the document in real-time to confirm the signature is legitimate. The witness will sign the document, or a copy of the document, to confirm they witnessed the signature.

The NSW Department of Communities and Justice said this could be done on a hard copy that is scanned and sent to the witness, or on an identical counterpart of the document the signatory signs.

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