COVID-19 has affected every segment of society, with the law being no exception. From enforced lockdowns of public housing compounds to Supreme Court battles to prohibit protests, it is prudent to consider how the pandemic has influenced the rule of law.
The Australian National University’s (ANU) student-led research and policy group Law Reform and Social Justice has been exploring these issues in their timely project COVID-19 and the Rule of Law. Collaborative with a digital-first approach, it has even grown to include students and academics from law schools in Sydney.
Comprising of five working groups who share their research weekly on a blog, the project aims to develop ideas and inform debate around Australia’s legal response to the COVID-19 crisis. In this Q&A, students involved in the project (listed below) share an overview of the project and its motivation.
1. What inspired you to launch this project and blog?
We were inspired to launch the project out of an interest in the legislative and policy developments around the COVID-19 crisis in Australia. We understood that the health crisis must be addressed, but were concerned that measures taken in response to the short-term crisis may cause longer-term harms. This is especially the case due to the limited transparency and accountability measures implemented by the government. We were also conscious of the disproportionate impact that some of the measures were having on vulnerable communities such as Indigenous Australians in remote communities and refugees in immigration detention. The project (and especially the blog) therefore aims to discuss these aspects of the pandemic response, to pose questions about how the government is exercising its power and whether that use is proportionate, fair and in compliance with the rule of law.
2. How many students are involved, and what does research entail?
There are around 20 students in the wider COVID-19 and Rule of Law project working on a range of projects that will be completed over the course of 2020. To date, six students, including collaborators from the University of Sydney and the University of Technology Sydney, have featured work on the blog. The research involves topic selection and drafting the posts before they are sent to academics for review. We have discussed a wide array of topics from: the Victorian tower lockdowns, online parliamentary sittings, the Black Lives Matter protests, the COVIDSafe app and the ACT ban on jury trials (among others). The full set of posts can be viewed on the blog, which can be found here.
All posts are reviewed by at least one senior ANU academic, with Associate Professors Matthew Zagor and Heather Roberts helping on constitutional law and public law-themed pieces and senior lecturer Dr Dilan Thampapillai helping with private law-themed pieces. The work is also aided by PhD candidate Achalie Kumarage, who manages the blog and helps with proofreading.
3. Who is your key audience, and what feedback have you received thus far?
The project is intended to target a broad audience including students, academics and those with a general interest in public policy and technology law. So far, we have received positive comments on the blog, especially on the posts shared through social media about the pieces.
4. What are some of the key impacts COVID-19 had on the rule of law?
The impact of COVID-19 has been widespread across all aspects of life. Across the world, new public health laws designed to curb the spread of the disease have had a direct impact on the freedoms and liberties of many. In Australia, the impacts of a recent ‘hard lockdown’ ordered for several public housing towers in Melbourne were felt most profoundly by society’s most vulnerable people. While in the ACT, the temporary suspension of jury trials raised significant concerns that defendants would be denied the right to a fair trial. This marked a major move away from the constitutional and common law right to trial by jury. In addition to these specific examples, in general, governments have become less open and transparent - with greater use of executive action to pass law, alongside widespread parliament shutdowns reducing transparency.
5. What have been the rewards and challenges of this project?
This project has been rewarding for a variety of reasons. On a personal level, the research and communication skills required to write, edit and publish the articles have been invaluable. Research on current trends is inherently more challenging than established areas of the law. Similarly, being able to work closely with leading academic scholars and receiving direct feedback on our work throughout the writing process has been an invaluable opportunity. With team members spread across the country (including at different universities) we have had to adapt to remote working practices, as we write pieces rapidly in response to evolving situations. For example, in response to the government’s announcement that sitting in August would be delayed, we had only a few days to research, draft and edit a blog post on the topic. In this way, we have been able to write on legal issues at the forefront of public debate.
6. Are there plans to adapt any blog entries to a research paper/s?
Some of the blog posts will feed into larger work. For example, several project members contributed to a submission to the Federal COVID-19 inquiry regarding the COVIDSafe app. There has been some discussion around whether a few of the topics could be further developed into research papers, but this is currently under review.
7. What have been some of the most surprising or interesting revelations about rule of law in Australia since the pandemic hit?
Although this might not be surprising to some, we have been surprised by the speed at which new legal issues and concerns seemingly develop overnight. The conversation about how COVID-19 affects the rule of law is highly dynamic and has allowed for this project to take on a life of its own. It has allowed us to write and undertake research on aspects of the topic that intersect with their own interests. For example, in addition to rule of law and constitutional law concerns, we have written blog posts exploring the intersection between law and technology and criminal law, areas that would not traditionally be associated with rule of law issues.
8. Can students interested in this project get involved and, if so, how?
Of course! We are open to collaborating with students and academics from the ANU or the wider community. Anyone interested should email Achalie Kumarage at firstname.lastname@example.org
Contributors: (ANU-affiliated unless noted otherwise)
Aaron Bronitt; Yasmin Frost (University of Technology Sydney); Yasmin Poole; Andrew Ray; Mia Stone; Dr Dilan Thampapillai; and Alexandra Touw (University of Sydney).