The BC Prosecution Service

Navigating through the pandemic remotely

The BC Prosecution Service

Public health concerns and suspension of in-court operations challenged the British Columbia Prosecution Service (“BCPS”) in fulfilling its constitutional and legislative mandates to the province’s residents. BCPS promotes public safety, justice, and respect for the rule of law by making principled charge assessment decisions and conducting fair and effective prosecutions and appeals of Criminal Code and many provincial offences. The pandemic did not suspend the Commission of such offences. Police agencies continued to submit reports to Crown counsel, arrest accused persons, and conduct complex investigations. Consequently, BCPS was compelled to continue its operations notwithstanding the pandemic.

Fortuitously, BCPS’s introduction of a weekend and statutory holiday Crown -led bail program in 2018 had already institutionalized a fully remote process to afford newly arrested accused persons their constitutionally mandated judicial interim release hearing before a justice with involvement of both Crown and defence counsel.

In response to directions from the Office of the Chief Judge to utilize similar remote processes in weekday Provincial Court bail operations, BCPS collaborated with police agencies to expand and implement a system of remote, electronic police disclosure. This enabled BCPS to continue receiving and assessing criminal charges remotely. Police agencies agreed to maintain custody of accused persons, thereby alleviating the need to transport persons to courthouses or correctional facilities for bail hearings. Coupled with the involvement of Legal Aid and counsel of choice, many accused persons have been released without the need for transport or further incarceration. These remote measures ensured continuity for essential bail operations and access to justice for accused persons.

To meet its disclosure obligations to accused persons as efficiently, safely, and securely as possible, BCPS also introduced a system of providing electronic disclosure to accused persons represented by counsel. BCPS worked with representatives of the private Bar, developed written support material for counsel, and participated in a summertime webinar hosted by Courthouse Libraries BC. This initiative enabled new files to be processed and spoken to more safely and without unreasonable delay.

Additionally, BCPS has been meeting regularly with the judiciary, Court Services Branch, Legal Aid BC, representatives of the Criminal Defence Advocacy Society and the Association of Legal Aid Lawyers, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, and all police agencies to explore and implement new measures to ensure access to justice while keeping one another safe. Collaboration has led to the creation of online forms and remote appearance processes, some of which may provide continuing benefit beyond the pandemic.

BCPS is, essentially, the province’s largest law firm with approximately 500 lawyers and more than 400 administrative and managerial staff working in diverse communities across the province. These people constitute BCPS’s core strength. Before and during the pandemic, BCPS has proactively encouraged dialogue among colleagues in the areas of wellness and mental health. Beyond the significant personal impacts of prosecutorial work, working remotely brings very real risks of social isolation and added mental health challenges. Consequently, BCPS has worked to alleviate the stigma of acknowledging impacts on mental health. Colleagues are strongly encouraged to remind one another that it is okay to say when they are not okay. Whether in a pandemic or not, wellness remains a critical organizational commitment.

The province has witnessed incredible sacrifice among frontline service providers. BCPS is proud to include its employees among the many people who have led the transition of our criminal justice system from a paper driven process to a safer remote electronic process, for which its employees’ efforts and dedication were recognized by CBABC with the 2020 Innovative Workplace Award. BCPS aspires to continue harnessing technology to make the province’s justice system more secure and accessible through the pandemic and beyond, and to support its people in future challenges.