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By Kirstie Grigor, Head of Criminal Law, Criminal Defence department, Gordon Legal

As COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc worldwide, the way we live is rapidly changing. In Victoria, it seems the legal landscape is shifting almost daily.

On 16 March, a state of emergency in Victoria was declared for a period of four weeks. On 30 March, further restrictions were announced as part of the Stay at Home Directions. At this stage they are to last until at least May 2020. Under these directions, Victorians are required to stay at their ordinary place of residence, other than in specified circumstances as laid out in the directive.

Increased potential to commit a crime

We are not used to living under such tight restrictions to our civil liberties. Further, there has been confusion about what is or is not allowed and many Victorians have found themselves in legal hot water from doing something as innocent as taking their child for a driving lesson, having a picnic in the park or going for a walk with a few friends. As isolation fatigue sets in, it is easy for people to let their guard down or be tempted to flout the law, but there are serious potential consequences for such actions.

Many Australians are feeling financial pressure from reduced work hours, and some have been stood down and now face an uncertain financial future. The hefty fines associated with flouting these restrictions will potentially exacerbate these financial troubles for everyday people.

Not only are the financial penalties significant but all of a sudden, what would normally be lawful conduct can see persons of otherwise good character left with a criminal record. A criminal record can have serious repercussions on current or future employment and even overseas travel, once restrictions on travel are lifted.

Increased potential to receive a fine or a criminal charge

The scope and nature of federal and Victorian government powers during times of public emergency is broad and can be seen as harsh. Police and border force powers have been increased during this time, which gives authorities more scope to charge and arrest Victorians for offences, some of which did not even exist one month ago. Officials have a number of Acts at their disposal to maintain public safety, some of which can result in severe penalties including:

  • Biosecurity Act 2015 (Commonwealth): breaches of this act can result in up to 5 years jail or a fine of up to $63,000
  • Public Health and Well Being Act 2008 (Vic) – offences for failing to comply with directions by authorised officers
  • Crimes Act 1958 – numerous existing offences which could potentially be used if a person intentionally or recklessly infects another
  • Crimes Act 1914 (Commonwealth) – powers of arrest without warrant

How to avoid a fine, or worse

At this time, we advise Victorians to adhere to the restrictions and the direction to stay home to the best of their ability. If you are approached by police officers you should be polite and respectful. Actions of police officers or officials, which may, on the face of it, seem unreasonable, may in fact be entirely lawful under their newest powers. The more reasonable you are, the more likely you are to escape with a warning.

We recommend Victorians stay informed by listening to the radio and visiting the websites of reputable organisations. There are details of the state’s restrictions on the Victorian Government’s website. There is a long, useful list of frequently asked questions on the Department of Health and Human Services website which, if you scroll through, will answer questions about when you are allowed to leave the house. You can also subscribe to the Federal Government’s health alerts and information on economic support for businesses and employers. We strongly advise that people do not rely on social media for this information as it is often inaccurate or inapplicable to your current location. Reliance upon this misinformation can have serious consequences.

Gordon Legal will offer information and advice as the crisis continues.

What to do if this information applies to you

For personalised and individual advice, we offer consultations to discuss your matter.

Please call Gordon Legal (Melbourne) on 1800 21 22 23 or our Geelong office on 1800 21 22 23 to speak with a member of our team.

Given the current environment, we are providing consultations over-the-phone – or using Zoom, WebEx and Skype.

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