In the middle of March, 2020, an unprecedented worldwide pandemic created a state of emergency in British Columbia and elsewhere in Canada. Public health officers delivered advice to people to stay home. Almost overnight, offices were shuttered, schools were closed, and courts reduced their operations to urgent matters.
BC was not alone in responding quickly. Courts around the world moved to reduce their operations to urgent matters to protect the health and safety of court users, including litigants, witnesses, support service providers and lawyers, as well as court staff.
Throughout this period, the BC Provincial Court has never closed. Although only urgent and essential matters were being heard initially, we have expanded operations incrementally as we developed the capacity to deal with other matters while complying with public health guidelines.
Since March our work has focussed on four main challenges:
- Responding quickly to applications for urgent hearings and providing those hearings
- Expanding our capacity to conduct proceedings remotely by using web-based technology, including videoconferencing
- Proactive planning for resumption of in-person proceedings
- Proactive planning to manage the backlog once in-person proceedings resume, and using case management techniques through case conferencing on matters adjourned due to the pandemic
In the past 12 weeks, the Court has adapted significantly. We rapidly developed procedures to deal with urgent hearings by telephone. We then rolled out Microsoft Teams, a secure videoconferencing platform, to our judicial officers and staff, who have now used this technology in hundreds of court proceedings. We are using it for all criminal pre-trial conferences and working on using it for all bail hearings in Surrey, our largest court. To ensure access to justice in remote communities in a way that doesn’t introduce COVID-19, we have also used it to conduct remand lists by videoconference in one of our circuit courts.
Our next step is to roll out this technology for bail hearings in as many places in the province as possible. To that end, we are working with government and police agencies across the province to install video or Microsoft Teams appliances.
In the future, the bail courts of the Provincial Court will be presumptively virtual, saving accused persons displacement from their communities and hours of travel to courts, and reducing demands on sheriffs’ time. Accused persons will appear for their bail hearings from police stations and correctional centres whenever possible. Their lawyers will appear by video, as will judges. This initiative will also enable smaller court locations that do not conduct daily remand courts to continue and complete trials without interruption as bail matters are heard by judges from other locations in virtual courts.
We have moved quickly to use our judges to conduct case conferences/mediations on all family and civil trials and previously scheduled case conferences that have been adjourned due to the pandemic. The goal of this work has been to find resolution to cases where possible. When that is not possible, judges case-manage the matter to help the parties focus on the issues, identify the witnesses needed, and determine how their evidence can be presented. Early results show we are resolving many of these matters and reducing the issues that will need to be heard in court. We are also gathering information through our case conferences about what trials can be heard remotely using Microsoft Teams.
Criminal matters are more challenging to hear by video. The Criminal Code provides that an accused person is entitled to be present in court, for all indictable matters, where evidence is being taken. The Court’s strategy has been to conduct pre-trial conferences using Microsoft Teams in all criminal files requiring more than half a day of court time, to determine if there is a resolution to the matter and, if not, to determine what admissions can be made to make the most efficient use of trial time. Again, early results show that we are making progress using these conferences. We have also developed virtual courts to hear criminal sentencings where neither party is seeking a jail sentence.
Concern has been raised that the Court has not been permitting new filings. We are actually receiving urgent family, small claims and criminal filings daily as well as some non-urgent filings. We anticipate being able to receive more non-urgent filings soon.
Shortly after reducing operations, BC courts began working collaboratively with court users and government to develop a process for opening courtrooms as quickly and safely as possible in accordance with the advice of the Provincial Health Officer. Unlike many other services in the community, the Provincial Court deals with large numbers of people who may be in courtrooms for a brief period or for a trial lasting several weeks, using seating, tables, lecterns and witness boxes. The Court must also safeguard people in custody in close quarters and the sheriffs responsible for escorting and managing them.
Government retained an independent expert to guide them in modifying courthouses and courtrooms so safe physical distancing could be maintained. Measures adopted include moving furniture, directing traffic flow, and installing plexiglass barriers in courtrooms where necessary. Additional daytime cleaners were also needed to maintain the cleaning standards necessary to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus.
Acting on the best information available at the time, on April 28, weeks before the Provincial Health Officer announced a staged reopening in the province, the Provincial Court adjourned all its in-person trials until July 6. Then, taking into account new advice from the Provincial Health Officer, on May 26 the Provincial Court announced it would be reopening 12 courtrooms on June 8 and a further 28 courtrooms on June 15, for a total of 40 in-person trial courts in the province by June 15, 2020.
Since May 26, our case managers have contacted many lawyers to offer these June dates for priority matters, but few lawyers have been willing or able to proceed and few criminal or other priority matters have been set. Accordingly, we are now rescheduling matters from all divisions of the Court, priority or not, between June 8 and July 3, 2020.
As set out in the Court’s Notice NP 19 , issued June 12, 2020, the Provincial Court will resume hearing scheduled criminal, youth, family and small claims trials in person on July 6, 2020. All self-represented litigants and lawyers should attend court at 9:00 a.m., ready for trial, on their scheduled date. After hearing from the self-represented litigants or lawyers, the Court will determine what matters will proceed. Witnesses and parties with lawyers are to wait outside the courthouse (within a 30 minute distance) and be prepared to be called to attend court.
People in BC are entitled to expect that their courts are open, there is timely access to justice, and the rule of law is upheld. They are also entitled to know that these will be safe courts. That is why the courts have taken the time necessary to open safe, accessible courtrooms. The Provincial Court will also continue collaborating and innovating to find new and dynamic ways to provide enhanced access to justice so people can resolve their legal issues and, where necessary, have their day in court - whether in a virtual hearing room or an in-person one.
Chief Judge Melissa Gillespie