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COVID-19: How the BC Provincial Court is Adapting to the Pandemic

 

COVID-19: How the BC Provincial Court is Adapting to the Pandemic

Open, accessible courts are fundamental to our democracy. The rule of law depends on it. However, the public, court staff, counsel, judges, litigants and the media need to know that when they come to courts they will be safe. In the face of the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis, the BC Provincial Court (the “Court”) has acted swiftly to maintain the public’s right of access to the court and the need to keep people safe.

Each year, the Court receives over 110,000 new cases encompassing criminal, family, child apprehension and small claims matters, along with an additional 80,000 violation tickets. Clearly, in the face of COVID-19, limiting the number of matters heard has had a profound impact on the public and their access.

Initially, to ensure public safety, only the most urgent matters were heard by video or audioconferencing at six hub courts across the province. Video appearances save the police and sheriffs from having to transport accused persons to courts for bail and sentencing hearings. Even before the coronavirus focused attention on remote hearings, the Court was working with government to improve access to justice by expanding videoconferencing capacity across the province and at police detachments. However, the state of technology and existing bandwidth has presented challenges and there remains an urgent and pressing need for government to continue to invest in and improve technology for our courts.

Earlier this year, the Court launched digital access for judges to court files, and this has enabled our judges to work remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. More recently, we have begun using Microsoft Teams (“Teams”) as our virtual platform. Email (and when necessary, telephone) filings are now accepted to enhance access and keep court staff safe by eliminating the need for in-person attendance at registries.

In late April, we commenced our plan to recover some of the Court’s operations. In our Small Claims and Family divisions, we are now conducting conferences by telephone on matters that were previously adjourned due to COVID-19. We are also conducting pre-trial conferences on trial matters with a view to determining if resolution is possible, if admissions can be made, and if the trial can be heard using Teams.

Justice Access Centres are now working virtually to assist family litigants with obtaining referral services, mediation, and document preparation so they are able to have more focused court appearances. The Court is hoping the early resolution model in operation in Victoria, where all new family files commence at these centres, will be rolled out in other larger locations across the province to assist parties in obtaining orders and resolutions.

The Court is also examining whether a centralized process for applications to vary child support can be developed in this COVID-19 period.

In child protection matters, we are focusing on expanding our web-based video capacity in remote communities to increase access to proceedings for parents and Indigenous communities.

In our criminal division we are now conducting pre-trial conferences on all criminal trials that are longer than half a day. Counsel and the judge attend these conferences virtually using Teams and the judge proactively engages with counsel who are expected to be prepared and able to make decisions. If resolution is not possible, then files are case-managed to restrict the use of court time to what is absolutely necessary to ensure a fair trial in this time of limited court resources.

Remote sentencing hearings are now available for out-of-custody criminal matters not involving incarceration and the Court is also working to have all bail hearings conducted using Teams.

Recovery of the Court’s work is difficult but it presents us with opportunities to use technology and other
innovations to improve access to justice, provided we bear in mind the need to ensure we maintain access for those to whom technology presents barriers, so everyone is able to access courts to have their legal issues resolved by fair and impartial judges.

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