Catching up with 4,000 court matters adjourned during pandemic a 'formidable' job: top B.C. judge

  • June 18, 2020

By Keith Fraser for The Vancouver Sun

The province’s top trial judge has revealed that about 4,000 B.C. Supreme Court matters have been adjourned due to the suspension of regular operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson told a webinar hosted by the Canadian Bar Association (B.C. branch) that during the past several months, little has been heard in court except urgent cases.

He said that province-wide adjournments numbered about 4,000 for pandemic-related reasons. Of those, 2,400 were civil matters, 1,000 were family matters, and 600 were criminal matters.

These includes trials, chambers matters, case conferences and sentencings. In particular, of the trials adjourned, there were 548 civil trials put over to another date, along with 120 family trials and 124 criminal trials.

“We’re going to have to try and play catch-up with what has been adjourned, but you can imagine it’s going to be formidable,” Hinkson told nearly 500 people participating in the bar association’s webinar on Monday.

Regular court operations were suspended in March to ensure the safety of court users after the B.C. government declared a state of emergency.

Last week, B.C. Supreme Court judge-alone trials were resumed, but Hinkson said that unfortunately there were fewer courtrooms available than had been anticipated, and once the courtrooms were made available after being inspected for sanitization purposes, there was a need to train services staff about new health procedures.

He said that he had expected that once trials were resumed there would be a number of lawyers and litigants who either couldn’t or wouldn’t want to proceed to trial.

From June 8 to June 14, there were 292 civil cases scheduled for trial, but only 18 wished to press ahead. There were 50 family matters scheduled, with only one that wished to proceed, said Hinkson.

“We haven’t seen the sort of take-up that has even utilized all of the available courtrooms and judges that we have. I expect it’s a transition for the bar and for litigants and that the numbers will keep progressing as we move along.”

Another problem has been that there are not necessarily enough staff, for a number of reasons, said Hinkson.

Both criminal and civil jury selections and trials have been suspended until at least September because of physical distancing requirements.

The chief justice noted that in Nova Scotia, a hockey rink was rented in order to conduct a criminal jury trial and added that he has spoken to B.C. Attorney-General David Eby about the prospect of renting facilities outside the courthouses that are large enough to accommodate jury trials.

Security issues may prevent criminal cases being held outside courthouses, but it is possible civil jury trials might be able to sit in locations other than traditional courthouses, he said.

Hinkson said a major constraint has been that the court system has traditionally been heavily dependent on paper documents, even though they have been accepting electronic filings for 10 years.

Even before the pandemic, efforts were made to address the technological deficiencies, and significant government funding is now being spent to address some of those challenges, he said.

Critics have argued that the failure to transition from an in-person, paper-dependent system to one that is digital and virtual has contributed to the pandemic backlog.

Eby admitted that providing funding for technology in courtrooms has not been a priority for any government in B.C. for a long time.

“That’s not to excuse it, but that’s been a reality with scarce government resources. Which means that very basic technology you would expect to have in a courtroom — like conference phones, sufficient Internet band width to support video streaming, or even enough phone lines to be able to conduct a conference call in a courtroom — simple don’t exist. ”

Eby said government has allocated $2 million in initial funding to address some of those shortcomings.

John Rice, president of the Trial Lawyers Association of B.C., said the task of rescheduling court matters is “indeed formidable” because the “underfunded and under-resourced justice system” was already under significant strain and backlog before COVID-19.

“In effect, we’re now piling a COVID-19 backlog onto a pre-existing backlog,” Rice said in an email.

Craig Ferris, president of the Law Society of B.C., which regulates the legal profession in the province, said that funding for improved technology in the system should be a priority for government, and that with thousands of court matters being adjourned, it was important that people be able to resolve their cases.

“Without that, we don’t have the rule of law, which is really the basis upon which our whole society operates.”

The provincial court, which hears most of the court cases in B.C., released figures indicating there were 5,943 adult criminal trials originally scheduled between March 16 and July 3, as well as 20,327 traffic trials and 187 youth trials. In addition, there were 450 small-claims court trials and 923 family trials that were adjourned due to COVID-19.

The court said that it had applied a number of “interventions” and not all of the files would have to be rescheduled for a number of reasons.