COVID-19 Edition 1: What Will the Legal Consequences Be?
It has been almost three months since the outbreak of the COVID-19 in Wuhan, China. To date (18 March 2020) it has infected more than 191,000 people, taken the lives of approximately 7,807 people and has now made Europe its epicentre. In Australia, there have been 454 confirmed cases, with 5 deaths. This virus has led to a global pandemic, with some countries in total lock down and others limiting travel.
So, what will the fall-out be in terms of legal actions - both criminal and civil?
Unfortunately, aggressive and hostile behaviours have been seen in the public arena. Members of the public have been assaulted in supermarkets in the rush for various "necessities" and some have even been tasered. Brawls have started over toilet paper and hand sanitisers, and supermarkets shelves are empty of meat, flour, rice, and other essentials. In Victoria, such actions may result in prosecutions under the Crimes Act 1958 for a range of charges including assault, causing serious injury recklessly or causing serious injury intentionally. There has also been a surge in cases of theft, ranging from taking toilet paper out of a blind lady's trolley at a supermarket, toilet paper and soap thefts, to stealing face masks and hand sanitiser from the hospital. These cases will most likely go see their way through the doors of the Magistrates Court to be dealt with under the Crimes Act 1958. Civil claims for damages and compensation may also arise from injuries suffered as a result of these actions. The world has also seen an increase in racist hate-crimes. A 23-year old Singaporean man was bashed by a group of strangers in London and was told "I don't want your coronavirus in my country". With Donald Trump calling COVID-19 the "Chinese Virus", there is no doubt that such racist acts against Asians will increase. In Australia, an Asian mum was called a 'coronavirus carrier' at a local Coles checkout. With such increasing hate speech happening, charges under s 7 of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 can be expected. The impacts of COVID-19 have been felt in both domestic and international trade and commerce. For example, the release dates of movies are being delayed and cruises are being temporarily cancelled. Airlines are cancelling the bulk of their international flights due to cancelled travel plans. The consequences to businesses will be far-reaching. There will be a myriad of consequences for Contracts with deadlines not being met, delayed production dates and failures to adhere to the Terms of Contracts, due to the cancellation of flights and the interruption of services. There will be a myriad of insurance claims - Firstly, such businesses should look to whether a Force Majeure clause is present in their Insurance Contract. Force Majeure refers to events that happen beyond parties' control, or what is usually known as "Acts of God". If a Contract does include a Force Maejure clause then parties can seek relief from such clause. If such a Clause is not included in a Contract, then parties may also have a standing under the common law ground of frustration. No doubt, with businesses shutting doors, some employers will be forced to let their employees go in this unprecedented time. For those who live from pay cheque to pay cheque, this unfortunate situation will impose great hardship on them. Furthermore, for employees who pay rent, they may be unable to pay their rent and will be served with eviction notices. Legal help may be required by these tenants who are seeking to remain in their homes, in order for them to be enabled to stay in their rental accommodation until the bad times have subsided. Finally Bankruptcies will increase as people find themselves unable to pay their debts as and when they become due. Therefore, COVID-19 has not only affected Australia's economy, but also the social fabric and well-being of the community. During such a hard time, it is important to remember that times will improve and to hold on to hope. If you are in need of legal assistance for any of the situations described above or for any other reason, please telephone us on 9870 9870. Our Team is able to assist with a wide range of matters and to provide quality legal advice.