Under new legislation, Canberrans in criminal proceedings will lose the right to a trial by jury while the government considers the territory to be in the midst of a coronavirus "emergency period".
The ACT Legislative Assembly on Thursday passed the COVID-19 Emergency Response Bill 2020, which includes a provision that all trials going ahead in the emergency period can be judge-alone.
The provision allows Supreme Court judges to order judge-alone trials if it will ensure "the orderly and expeditious discharge of the business of the court", and is otherwise in the interests of justice.
A judge can make the order regardless of whether an accused person agrees to it - but parties must have notice of the proposed order and can make submissions about it in court.
Under the new legislation, people can also invite a judge to proceed with a judge-alone trial if they're accused of offences that would normally rule out the option. These offences are serious and include murder, manslaughter, sexual intercourse without consent, and possessing child exploitation material.
ACT attorney-general Gordon Ramsay on Thursday said the interim change would allow trials to continue to be heard without putting jurors, court staff, and legal practitioners at unnecessary risk.
"Justice delayed is justice denied," Mr Ramsay told the Legislative Assembly.
"Delays in criminal proceedings have adverse affects and may combine with many other factors, such as the loss of evidence to deny accused [people] a fair trial.
"Delayed trials can prolong the trauma of the survivors and make it substantially more difficult for them to be able to move on in their life."
Justice minister Shane Rattenbury supported the change to trials on Thursday, and also noted the impact delayed criminal proceedings had on victims of crime.
"I have sought advice, and understand from the Director of Public Prosecutions that there are 19 matters listed for hearing between now and the end of June," Mr Rattenbury said.
"That is a lot of victims of crime who could see their matters deferred."
The ACT Law Society, among others, has condemned the change.
In a statement, it said the change removed the "right to a fair trial". The society said the territory should have followed NSW and ensured that "no judge-alone trial can occur unless the accused agrees to proceed by judge-alone".
The chair of the society's criminal law committee, Michael Kukulies-Smith, said the new provision was "fundamentally unsound and misguided".
"The right to trial by jury is a significant, longstanding right in our legal system that has been consistently observed by the High Court of Australia," Mr Kukulies-Smith said.
"It is a fundamental tenet of the rule of law, and has been enshrined in legal systems since before Magna Carta."
The bill defines the emergency period in which the change to trials stands as between March 19, 2020 and December 31, but a new end date can be chosen.
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