Virtual hearings are happening in courtrooms across Canada as the justice system adapts to the unfolding COVID-19 situation. This week’s update on pivots in the justice system includes: virtual hearings in Manitoba and Alberta, outreach in Ontario and data and resources we can learn from out of the UK:
Alberta, Manitoba (and some courts in Ontario) go virtual
In Alberta, Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Mary Moreau held the court’s first virtual sentencing hearing on April 2, 2020, and called it a success.
The Manitoba Court of Appeal announced April 3, 2020 that, beginning on Monday, April 20, 2020, all appeals will be heard remotely by videoconferencing, using GoToMeeting.com.
The Ontario Superior Court of Justice provided an updated notice on April 2, 2020, regarding the suspension of its regular options, writing that the Court recognizes that as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it has a constitutional responsibility to ensure access to justice remains available.
The updated notice remarks that “[t]here will necessarily be regional differences in approach. Some of the Court’s regions have significantly higher volumes than others. At this time, some regions also have court administration and trial coordination support better equipped to work virtually. The Court is making the best use of resources available to it.”
Ontario’s virtual outreach
The Honourable Chief Justice Geoffrey B. Morawetz of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice hosted a virtual fireside chat to discuss the priorities of the Superior Court of Justice amid the COVID-19 crisis on Monday, April 6, 2020.
An E-Hearings Task Force has been established in Ontario, where The Advocates’ Society, the Ontario Bar Association, the Federation of Ontario Law Associations, and the Ontario Trial Lawyers’ Association work with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to expand virtual access to the courts.
The UK provides data and resources to learn from
Resolution – a community of family justice professionals – published a survey designed to take an early ‘snapshot’ of the use of remote hearings in family proceedings in the jurisdiction. The survey indicates that remote hearings have taken place in courts on all UK circuits, that the majority of remote hearings have taken place by telephone (86.67%), followed by Skype (28.89%) and Zoom (15.56%). The majority of remote hearings have been set up either by the court (40.00%) or a represented applicant (35.56%).
The UK Courts and Tribunal Judiciary is continually updating a document offering detailed guidance on remote family court operations. On April 3, 2020, Mr. Justice MacDonald released Version 3, which remarks that a matter of extreme urgency is ensuring the judges and all parties can access court documents electronically (Editors Note: UK courts use the term “bundles” for what the Canadian legal system refers to as an “Application Record” or similar)
“The ability of the judge and the parties to access an electronic bundle for the hearing comprises an essential element of an effective remote hearing. Whilst there has been increasing use of electronic bundles, and whilst in some Family Courts, for example Manchester, the use of electronic bundles (accessed through CaseLines) is the default position, the wholesale move to remote hearings as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic means ensuring the availability of e-bundles and the software packages to use them effectively (see paragraph 5.9 below) is a matter of extreme urgency”(emphasis in original)
The Remote Access Family Court, Mr Justice MacDonald (Version 3) April 3, 2020
Why this matters: Building on last week’s update, Canada’s justice system is showing signs of a pivot. Provinces can learn from each other as they lean in to virtual hearings. In the UK, all Crown Courts in England and Wales have been running paperlessly for the last four years, so Canada’s justice system may wish to look there for evidence-based guidance on what works.