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VCAT builds digital capabilities to better serve Victorians and the State’s economy

The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) provides an avenue to resolve legal disputes in Victoria that can be cheaper and faster than the court system.

The busiest Tribunal in Australia, VCAT has routinely tackled more than 80,000 cases a year in the past and operates in around 60 locations. It has previously relied on a largely paper based and manual process, as well as a legacy case management system that is approaching end of life.

VCAT’s 2018-22 Strategy document sets out its transformation ambitions which are to become a more digitally streamlined and contemporary Tribunal, with the opportunity for more client self-service, with inclusivity and accessibility front and centre. This is particularly important now, as Victoria’s pandemic related lockdowns have led to a backlog of matters which needs to be tackled.

VCAT Office signage
VCAT tackles more than 80,000 cases per year (Source: Sydney Morning Herald)

There are five divisions and nine lists operated by VCAT, including the Planning and Environment Division. As part of VCAT’s modernisation strategy, this division has been working with PwC to develop a digital tribunal case management system built on Microsoft Dynamics 365, leveraging the Power Platform as well as Teams and SharePoint.

The first use case is for planning dispute resolution, although ultimately VCAT’s Strategy envisages all divisions being equipped with digital platforms to manage and streamline the dispute resolution process. The new platform will also b

e able to respond more nimbly to legislative changes, reduce paperwork and automate processes and workflows.

VCAT CEO Mary Amiridis notes that the organisation has only just begun its transformation journey, but says that it is in line with a growing global trend that has been catalysed by the pandemic.

“This is very much one development area that’s happening around the globe; I understand that my counterparts in the Netherlands, the UK, Canada, and the US, have also found that COVID has really been a catalyst for the digitisation and transformation of their court systems.“

She says that the vision for VCAT is to become a; “Very, very service-oriented organisation, where we offer a range of ways to access the Tribunal. Whether that’s entirely digital, whether that’s in-person, or a hybrid combination with a workforce that doesn’t have to focus on transactional activities, but really high value activities that support access to justice.”

Two workers completing paper files
Traditionally a manual, paper-based process, VCAT worked with PwC to build a digital tribunal case management system built on Microsoft (Source: Gabrielle Henderson)

The modernisation and digitisation of the Planning and Environment list is providing a demonstration of how that can occur. Amiridis notes that by June VCAT will have this list operating independently of its other older manual systems, with an end-to-end digital workflow.

“It’s our demonstration project, if you like. It’s our proof of concept. And we’ve already started planning for the next list that we want to actually stand up on the new platform,” she adds.

Streamlining access

The Dynamics 365 based platform, developed by VCAT, PwC and Microsoft, was deployed in the Planning and Environment division in late 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic significantly disrupted the overall operations of VCAT, with Members (the people who hear cases), and operations staff – having to work from home with limited access to VCAT systems or documents. Initially, only the most urgent cases were being heard via telephone and video conference, which led to significant delays in dispute resolution.

According to Melissa Biram, Director of Strategic and Operational Change; “Where we were used to running all of our hearings at that point in person, usually with people on site at our principal venue at King Street, or at one of the other venues in Victoria, we had to suspend face-to-face hearings.

“So we stopped in-person hearings and we weren’t in a position to just quickly move to our amazing digital platform to hear matters remotely. We had to really scramble in terms of how were we going to initially stop, and then how are we going to maintain a level of operation during the pandemic,” she adds.

Access to digitised content and modern communications and collaboration technology in the Planning and Environment division has demonstrated to VCAT the value in moving to a cloud based digital case management system for the whole Tribunal over the next few years.

Instead of relying on a single physical file that can only be accessed by one person at a time, the digitised file can be securely accessed by anyone with appropriate authority, speeding up processes significantly.

Tracey Kennair, Partner and Deputy Chair – Governance Board, PwC says; “It has been a privilege for PwC to work so closely with VCAT to help make a real difference to the digitisation and operations of VCAT and the continued access to justice for Victorians through the COVID-19 pandemic.

I am really proud of how our teams have worked together as one, to deliver this new Microsoft based digital platform and the broader outcomes. This was achieved within the tight timeframes and urgency that the COVID response required and has enabled us to help VCAT on its ongoing digital transformation journey.

Digitised workflows

Working with PwC and Microsoft, VCAT now has digitised paper files and processes in readiness for the Planning and Environment List is going completely digital in 2021. The system is able to allocate correspondence to the relevant case in Dynamics 365, provides for online applications through portals and emails, and manages payments as well as decision notifications. Power Apps have been developed to manage the flow of information and work processes across the division.

Within the division itself the platform provides information about relevant Member expertise and their availability to hear matters, as well as hearing room availability and hearing schedules in order to streamline processes.

Amiridis notes that when VCAT was selecting the underlying technologies for the program of work, “We were looking for a low code, easy to maintain, long-term foolproof solution,” and the ability to support a more agile way of working.

Carol Daicic, Acting Deputy President, Planning and Environment Division, also stresses the importance of having anywhere, anytime secure access to information. She says that when the pandemic forced in-person hearings to end; “We were really worried about the impact on the Victorian community and economy.”

Now VCAT is looking to deploy the platform and digital capability more broadly across the organisation. According to Acting DP Daicic; “I think actually the silver lining was that it was a big shock that we’d had to do it this way, because I think it would otherwise have taken five years plus to adjust.”

Claire Reinecke, the Senior Digital Program Manager at VCAT, says; “In the future, the idea is that we would build on that single environment, so that we have a single point of entry for any user interacting with VCAT, who then wants to submit an application for whatever list it might be relevant to.”

The Power Platform would be able to take the information and automatically import it to Dynamics 365.

“We’d love to roll this out to the entire organisation, that’s fundamentally what we’re trying to do,” says Reinecke. She acknowledges though that VCAT also needs to tackle workforce change management issues and any required digital upskilling for staff as they transition to a more modern way of operating.

That’s also acknowledged in VCAT’s 2108-2022 strategy which notes that;

Transforming our work from paper-based to digital services will change the nature of our workforce over time.

Legal advisory staff infront of office sign
Building a digital foundation has positive flow-on effects from its staff to the Victorian public (Source: VCAT)

“We will support our people to make the shift through targeted development, focused on building digital competence and service excellence across the organisation.”

Amiridis adds; “VCAT touches many lives and many parts of the community and the economy. So you can certainly position this in a global sense around where we will get to in a fully digitised environment, what the contribution this jurisdiction makes to the Victorian community and economy is and the fact that we actually have flow on, positive impacts potentially to a whole range of other government entities and departments.”

Building strong modern digital foundations, and upskilling its people will ultimately deliver the digital capability that will allow VCAT to expand its resilience and deliver streamlined service – and justice – to the Victorian public.