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COVID and the Courts – How the Court System is Adapting to the Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way things are done across many industries and the legal profession has had to adapt as well.
On March 15, 2020, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice suspended all but urgent matters. Because the Court has a constitutional responsibility to ensure access to justice remains available, they have taken a number of steps to re-open and begin hearing matters again.
The London Courthouse began to permit in-court hearings in early July, starting with criminal and family law trials and other hearings that are urgent or had been scheduled to be heard during the suspension of Court operations. The Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General has implemented a number of safeguards in order to re-open, including limiting capacity and reconfiguring courtrooms to allow for physical distancing, setting up plexiglass barriers and enhancing cleaning procedures for courtrooms. Members of the public are encouraged not to attend the courthouse unless they have matters before the court or business to conduct at the courthouse, and all persons are required to go through a COVID-19 screening process before entering the courthouse.
As there are currently only a small number of in-court hearings, most routine hearings are now being done virtually, by teleconference or videoconference. This allows important steps in the litigation process, such as motions, pre-trial conferences and case conferences to go ahead while maintaining physical distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19. Getting used to the procedure for virtual hearings has been an adjustment for both judges and lawyers, but everyone has been making an effort do their best with the technology available.
The disruption caused by the pandemic has forced the Court to modernize and the Ontario Superior Court of Justice has greatly expanded their ability to have court materials filed online. This streamlined and more efficient process will be advantageous going forward, as it reduces the amount of paper used and makes court documents more accessible. In many ways, the pandemic has forced the profession and the courts to improve technology and efficiency which will benefit matters and help to keep costs down. For instance, if clients and experts can continue to attend virtually, in cases where it is appropriate for remote or virtual access, this will significantly reduce costs and move matters along faster.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made holding trials by jury especially difficult. In the past, hundreds of potential jurors would be brought into a courtroom to be vetted and selected for the jury. Once selected, jurors were required to sit closely together in the jury box and be sequestered together for as long as the trial lasts. The London Courthouse began the first jury trial since the pandemic in September, with potential jurors coming into the Courthouse at staggered times and then physically distanced in the jury box and front rows of the public gallery. This new process requires significantly more time and physical space than it has in the past, and it remains to be seen how the Court will handle the backlog in jury trials that continues to build. At a recent conference held with the London lawyers and the Court, there still remains uncertainty of when civil jury and non-jury trials will continue. With COVID cases on the rise, this doesn’t help to secure a fast and prompt return to the court. The Court is certainly making every efforts to keep the bar informed about next steps and changing policies and procedures while we all adapt during this difficult time.
This article was written by Personal Injury Lawyer Louis DelSignore and Articling Student Jonathan Bradford.