Offenders facing jail time will not be sentenced by the NSW Local Court, the state's busiest court, for at least two months in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Courts across the country are scrambling to introduce procedures to limit face-to-face hearings and transition to hearings via telephone or audiovisual link as Prime Minister Scott Morrison warns Australians to brace for a "difficult six months".
In a statement on Tuesday, Local Court Chief Magistrate Graeme Henson foreshadowed drastic measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 including adjourning, or postponing, all sentencing proceedings involving a prison term for at least eight weeks.
"If the current situation remains at that time, the proceedings should be adjourned for a further eight weeks," Judge Henson said.
Some offenders affected by the new arrangements may already be in prison if they were denied bail pending trial, but others will remain on bail.
Criminal trials not already underway in the Local Court will also be postponed for at least three months.
Defendants in custody awaiting Local Court trial will be able to apply for release on bail, in recognition of the fact "a lengthy period of continuing custody ... may result in a period of incarceration that would exceed the ultimate penalty" if they were found guilty. However, such cases will not proceed to a preliminary hearing for at least eight weeks.
The new measures take effect from March 30.
The NSW Supreme Court is banning all hearings in person unless there are "exceptional circumstances" and the Chief Justice Tom Bathurst or head of jurisdiction grants approval.
Many hearings including matters in the NSW Court of Appeal are taking place via telephone and audiovisual link. Journalists are still permitted to observe the judges, who remain in court, if they follow social distancing rules.
The NSW Coroners Court in Lidcombe is only proceeding with matters that can be conducted using technology, and will continue with this arrangement until at least June 30.
A small number of participants remain in court but observers have been asked to spread out in the public gallery. Detailed handwashing diagrams are placed around the complex.
Inquests listed at country locations until 30 June have been postponed.
"We appreciate these changes may be distressing for families," a court spokesperson said.
"Most of the families contacted have been very understanding and many are relieved they are not required to travel to attend court during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Existing criminal trials in the NSW District Court are proceeding, but new jury trials will not go ahead until October at the earliest. Jurors have been asked to spread out in court rather than sitting together.