May 14, 2020

Social distancing, rent relief and small business protections. These terms have suddenly become part of the daily media discourse as the nation’s Federal, State and Local Governments have been working in overdrive to navigate the nation through the unprecedented phenomenon that is COVID-19.

The COVID-19 Emergency Response Act 2020 (Qld) (“the Act”) is part of the second stage of legislative reforms aimed to bolster and formalise the various restrictions and concessions that we are so used to seeing being discussed by our nation’s leaders on a daily basis. The COVID-19 crisis is erratic and whilst the Act is not an exhaustive rulebook per se, it attempts to provide the appropriate powers to create regulations as the situation continues to evolve.

WHAT DOES IT DO?

In a bid to protect the health, safety and welfare of Queenslanders, the Act canvasses the following changes:-

  1. Politicians to ‘Stay at Home’

The Act allows our politicians to “practice what they preach,” amending the Parliament of Queensland Act 2001 to enable meetings of the Legislative Assembly to take place via technology during the COVID-19 emergency.

  1. Residential tenancies and rooming accommodation

The extreme hardship experienced by tenants has been widely reported in mainstream media. Rent reprieve and eviction prevention have been discussed at length, but only recently are these measures being seen in statute.

The Act provided scope for such regulation to be passed and, as promised, on 24 April 2020 some of these measures were officially instituted, including:-

  • A moratorium on evictions for residential tenancies where the tenant is suffering excessive hardship and unable to pay rent;
  • Mandatory offers of tenancy extensions to 30 September 2020 for those experiencing excessive hardship;
  • A prohibition of landlord’s entry to premises where the landlord or tenant is subject to a quarantine direction; and
  • Removal of obligations for owners and providers to undertake routine repairs and inspections where it is incompatible with social distancing and community health guidelines.
  1. Non-residential tenancies and Small Business Commissioner

We have discussed the National Cabinet Mandatory Code of Conduct (‘the Code’) [link to our article: https://www.mcw.com.au/page/Publications/property/2020/national-cabinet-mandatory-leasing-code-of-conduct/] and its reaches at length over the past month. The Queensland Parliament now has the power to make regulations that implement this code.

Over the coming months, expect to see legislation designed to alleviate the financial pressure for tenants and landlords in the commercial space in a similar vain to their residential counterparts, such as:-

  • A moratorium on terminations for non-payment of rent
  • A suspension on rent increases; and
  • Other regulations purposed to enforce the Code.

Along with rent relief, small businesses will now also gain the benefit of a temporary Small Business Commissioner. The commissioner will act as a one stop shop for information and advice surrounding COVID-19 response measures for small businesses. Expect to see services such as assistance and dispute resolution processes for leasing matters rolled out in the near future.

  1. Defining the ‘Covid-19 affected period’

It is anyone’s guess how long the pandemic will continue to effect the usual course of business. Whilst statisticians and medical professionals speculate over the issue, the Act at least provides its own expiry date, along with the subordinate legislation developed under it to harness the issue. That date is 31 December 2020.

  1. Document deadlines

Deadlines and timeframes are a common feature of almost any industry. As such, historically legislation has been developed to define those boundaries. Covid-19 threatens this concept as processes are naturally elongated due to health measures such as social distancing.

The Act provides the authority for regulations to be made to modify those requirements as they pertain to how and when documents are dealt with, for example:-

  • the signing of a document by a person;
  • the witnessing of signatures;
  • the certification of matters by signatories, witnesses or other persons involved in the making of a document;
  • the verification of the identity of individuals;
  • the attestation of a document;
  • the production of a document by a person; and
  • the making of a document in a particular form or way.
  1. Modification framework

Part of the Act establishes a number of broad and facilitative empowering provisions, allowing legislative requirements to be modified (where required) in the following areas:

    1. Attendance at places or meetings, making and associated use of documents and physical presence requirements:

Social distancing requirements implemented by the first response are likely to impact any area that requires the physical presence of people. That is why it is necessary to have the ability to implement processes for enabling technological communication for things that would otherwise be done in person.

    1. Statutory timeframes

Due to the significant impact that COVID-19 has had on individuals’ livelihoods and government resourcing and capacity, it may not be possible for everyone to meet existing legislative timeframes. This is why it is necessary to provide the ability to modify necessary statutory periods.

    1. Proceedings of courts and tribunals

Social distancing has dramatically impacted the proceedings and procedures of courts, tribunals and other entities with judicial functions, requiring alteration to facilitate alternative arrangements, minimising personal appearance or physical presences. Therefore, again it is necessary to provide for continued functioning of courts during COVID-19 while also ensuring the consistency and compliance with health advice.

WHAT ARE WE STILL WAITING FOR?

The Act represents one of many critical legislative steps designed to navigate through these unprecedented times. The COVID-19 situation is shifting on a daily basis, and for this reason, this step has been focused on providing the appropriate empowering provisions to create regulations with sufficient flexibility.

We will continue to provide updates as the regulations developed by virtue of the Act come to pass. These regulations will contain the specific measures implemented in relation to court proceedings, attendance at places or meetings, statutory timeframes and residential and non-residential tenancies.

Keep an eye out for our bulletins to remain up to date with your rights and responsibilities. If you have any questions or require advice in relation to the effects of COVID-19 on your specific circumstances, please get in touch with a member of our Commercial Division.