This article was originally published in The Vancouver Sun.
By Ian Mulgrew
In the first virtual meeting of the Law Society of B.C. on Friday, the legal regulators lamented the inability of the justice system to respond to the pandemic and the need for fundamental reform.
Attorney-General David Eby, sans socks, appeared on Zoom from his bedroom assuring participants: “If you hear screaming in the background, we’re not torturing our children — that’s home-schooling.”
Joking aside, Eby and the law society are concerned about the collapse of access to justice in the province because of the pandemic.
The B.C. Supreme Court on Thursday extended the suspension of normal operations until May 29, while the Provincial Court and Court of Appeal have similarly curtailed proceedings in the face of the novel coronavirus.
Eby said his ministry was working with all three levels of court to address the situation.
“I’m very hopeful we’ll have some news very shortly about online appearances and an expansion of services beyond the most urgent matters,” he told the benchers.
“It’s literally happening as we speak. And definitely, it won’t be static as it is now until the end of May. This is a constantly evolving situation. We have a proposal going to my colleagues in cabinet for additional funding to enable technological rollouts … to enable all the courts to be able to do more remote work and get back as closely as possible to business as usual.”
He conceded it was taking time: “But I have a hard time complaining at cabinet with the health minister having cancelled all elective surgeries and is getting correspondence about that as well. It’s a terrible situation, but the good news is that … all three levels are engaged and motivated to get back to business as normal as possible.”
Family law has required special attention, he acknowledged.
“There have been a lot of concerns people have about shared parenting, where one parent is in a higher-risk situation than the other, people losing jobs, unable to pay child support, and so on,” Eby explained.
“The family justice services division is using telephone and videoconferencing … and family maintenance enforcement services continue to be delivered remotely to provide support to people who have evolving financial circumstances, usually in a very negative way in light of the pandemic. They have temporarily stopped issuing new credit reports, default fees and cancelling drivers licences, recognizing that there are a large number of people in real financial distress right now.”
Craig Ferris, law society president, seriously asked: How do we keep the system running? Are the courts a place, or a service?
“What this crisis has done is make clear to all of us who have had access to the justice system, what it is like for the 80 or 90 per cent of people — whatever number you choose to believe — who don’t have access to the justice system,” he told his colleagues.
“I ask you all to think about that for a moment, and ask you whether you like it or not. I don’t like it.”
Bencher Geoffrey McDonald agreed.
“How the courts run is in a way that a lawyer from a century ago could show up and quite easily navigate — because it hasn’t changed,” he complained. “It’s the same format — we demand physical location in a courthouse and we have people sitting and waiting. … It’s bizarre, it’s absurd, it’s ridiculous.”
Two of his clients In Fort St. John showed up six times to plead guilty in what should have been 30-minute hearings, and each time their case didn’t go ahead.
“We do need to modernize the court system or I think it will become apparent that tribunals like the (Civil Resolution Tribunal) will be created to replace it,” McDonald insisted. “It doesn’t work. It takes too long. … There are so many procedural steps that should be done by telephone, by video, electronically. … We have to modernize.”
Dean Lawton, first vice-president of the law society, concurred.
“We have countless applications going before masters and judges where personal appearances are required,” he pointed out. “In my view, most of those could be dealt with an application on the written record … very much reducing the waste of time, waiting and adjournments that occur now in chambers every day.”
There is an opportunity, Ferris suggested, to use the crisis to turbo-charge legal information and propel law into the digital age, reshape the landscape and entire legal ecosystem.
“As time has gone on, and the problems of process, of paper and the problem of more paper, the problem of institutional resistance, the problem of the lack of use of technology by many participants in our justice sector, and the continued inability to get our trial courts to deal with most disputes, it occurred to me — maybe I’m slow on the uptake — but we ought to be talking about reform right now.We ought to be talking about reform now more than ever. We ought to be talking about reform yesterday, today and tomorrow. And we ought to be talking about it more urgently than we ever have before.”
Time has run out, he warned: “The Tesla is leaving the charging station and we can’t be stuck at the gas pump.
“We need to roll up our sleeves, log in and work harder than we have before. If we don’t, this will pass us by. Somebody else will do it for us and we will become much like wigs and quill pens — a charming anecdote in legal history.”