BC courts are not closed. In fact, we cannot close our courts because they are an essential component of our democratic system. Canadian courts are entrusted with vital responsibilities – resolving disputes of all kinds peacefully, safeguarding individual rights, enforcing laws, protecting children, and assuring that Canada remains subject to the rule of law – and these continue during a pandemic.
During the COVID-19 pandemic the BC Provincial Court is working hard to fulfil those responsibilities and keep courts accessible without endangering the safety of the public, litigants, witnesses, prisoners, lawyers, court staff or judicial officers.
Ensuring essential services continue
To do that, we’ve had to suspend many of the services we usually provide and perform others in different ways. Following the advice of public health officials, the Court’s goal has been to reduce the number of people in courthouses in order to avoid spreading the COVID-19 virus. Nevertheless, we must still ensure that people with urgent matters have access to the Court. Therefore, on March 16, 2020 we adopted “an essential services model” that allows the Court to operate with fewer staff and others physically present in courthouses.
This required us to suspend regular court operations – to put off (adjourn) trials that are not urgent, avoid commencement of non-urgent new matters, centralize operations, and use technology wherever possible to deal with urgent matters by telephone or video conferencing.
However, laws require that matters like bail hearings for people arrested and some child protection matters must still proceed. And for other matters, people have the right to apply to the Court to get a decision by a judge on whether their matter is so urgent it should proceed during the period of reduced operation.
In order to protect both court users and staff, the public has been strongly discouraged from attending courthouses and court registries are not providing in-person services. Instead, people can communicate with them by email, phone, mail, fax or e-Filing, depending on the location and type of case. See NP 19 COVID-19 Suspension of Regular Court Operations for specific filing options and procedures.
Delaying the filing of new applications and non-urgent documents until the Court resumes normal operations has allowed the staff who continue to work in court registries to process urgent matters more quickly and deal with the many telephone calls from people needing information.
Centralizing operations as much as possible has made it possible for cleaning companies to focus more resources on the “hub courts” in each region, where urgent matters from around the region are being heard. The hub courts are also physically larger court locations with bigger work areas that can accommodate more court registry staff while maintaining appropriate social distancing, thus enabling the reduction of court registry staff at smaller court registries.
How Court work is continuing
Although staffing levels have been reduced, judges, court staff, and sheriffs are continuing to work in Provincial Court courtrooms, in-person or remotely, on bail hearings, sentencing hearings, and urgent family and child protection applications. Defendants in criminal matters who are in jail are appearing in the courtroom by video and lawyers are participating by telephone. The parties in family and civil matters are also taking part in their hearings by phone.
The “hub courts” we’ve designated in each region of the province have generally been operating four courtrooms a day. While Regional Administrative Judges have attempted to centralize operations and deal with matters from around their regions in their hub courts, some hearings are taking place in local courts when the hub court is too busy. This flexibility helps to maintain physical distancing and ensure matters can be heard in a timely way.
Hub courts: Kelowna, Vancouver Criminal, Prince George, Victoria, Surrey, Vancouver Robson Square (clockwise from top left)
At times judges are working remotely, from a distant courthouse or from home, to deal with written applications, issue written orders, and preside over hearings by telephone. When this happens, court clerks are connected by telephone and the proceedings are recorded as usual.
Judicial justices continue to staff the Court’s Justice Centre to deal with after-hours bail hearings by telephone or video, as well as applications for search warrants and other judicial authorizations. The Court’s judicial case managers are coping superbly with the huge challenges of scheduling urgent applications, adjourning non-urgent matters, and fielding inquiries, in an environment of constant change.
The staff of the Office of the Chief Judge are working extra-long days, remotely whenever possible, to support the Chief Judge and the Court’s administrative team as they perform the delicate balancing act of providing essential court services while safeguarding health.
Chief Judge Melissa Gillespie says, “Collaboration with others in the justice system – the other BC courts, Ministry of the Attorney General, provincial and federal prosecution services, Legal Aid, private lawyers, corrections services, law enforcement agencies and public health officials – has been a constant and crucial aspect of our pandemic response planning. We are also communicating and sharing information with other courts across Canada.
The Court will continue to review its operations as the medical advice changes. In order to restore as much access to justice as possible, as quickly as possible, we are now considering what types of non-urgent court proceedings can be resumed with adequate safeguards to avoid contagion, and when. We are also planning ahead to manage the backlog the Court will face when the state of emergency ends.
In keeping with the open courts principle, we are also working with the Court Services Branch on a way to better facilitate remote media access to court proceedings during the pandemic.
The lessons we're learning during this difficult time will help us improve access to justice in the future.”
Note: Four BC court locations were closed briefly in March when it was learned that someone in the courthouse had been in contact with a person with COVID symptoms. After deep cleaning, three reopened two days later; one reopened after two weeks. However, matters from these court locations continued to be heard remotely during the closures.