Using technology to increase access to justice: introducing the Northern Bail Pilot Project & how it will work

Posted to: 
Court
15/04/2021

Imagine you were arrested on Monday in a small northern BC community where the Provincial Court convened only on Thursdays. Until last year, if the police did not agree to your release and you wanted a bail hearing before a judge, you would be held in custody while transport was arranged, then transported to Prince George to appear in court for the hearing. If you were released on bail, you’d find yourself in Prince George, far from home, perhaps with no way to get back.

If you had been arrested on a Thursday, you could have had a bail hearing in the local court and be released in your own community. But the judge would have had to interrupt the trials scheduled for that day to conduct your hearing. The resulting loss of court time might prevent a scheduled trial from finishing. Adjourning that trial would cause the litigants and their witnesses inconvenience and expense.

Working with the provincial government and other stakeholders (including Legal Aid BC, defence counsel, BC Prosecution Service, Public Prosecution Service of Canada, and police), the Provincial Court is taking steps to improve the bail process in northern BC.

On April 19, 2021, we will launch the Northern Bail Project to test a centralized bail hearing model in which hearings take place in virtual courtrooms. This eNews outlines the goals of the Northern Bail Pilot Project and CRIM 14 Practice Direction - Northern Bail Pilot Project tells lawyers how to participate in bail hearings in BC’s Northern Region.

Background

When COVID-19 arrived, the BC Provincial Court had been working for some time with government and stakeholders to reform bail practices and improve this system, providing better access to justice for people in smaller communities. In order to minimize risks of contagion, during the last year, in addition to those hearings held virtually at the Justice Centre, all bail hearings conducted by judges have been held virtually - by videoconference or audioconference - unless a judge or justice orders otherwise (See NP 19 Court Operations During COVID-19)

In BC’s Northern Region, many have been conducted with the judge, accused person, and lawyers connected only by telephone, due to a lack of computers and equipment suitable for videoconferencing.

Using technology to increase access to justice

Microsoft Teams units have now been installed in seven RCMP Detachments across northern BC:

• Burns Lake
• Dawson Creek
• Fort Nelson
• Kitimat
• New Hazelton
• Prince George
• Quesnel

and at Prince George Regional Correction Centre (PGRCC). The project will evaluate the impact of installing these units so bail hearings from those locations can be conducted with all participants appearing by videoconference instead of telephone.

Project Objectives:

These include:

• reducing time spent in-custody awaiting a bail hearing, with fewer overnight remands in police cells
• fewer transports of prisoners by sheriffs to courthouses and correctional facilities
• reducing displacement of accused people from the housing, employment, health, and other support in their own communities
• reducing or eliminating interruptions to previously scheduled trials due to unscheduled bail hearings for newly arrested people
• increasing access to duty counsel and Crown resources through consolidation in larger locations, ensuring people arrested have access to duty counsel by telephone or video before their bail hearings
• as they review and approve all charges, allowing Crown Counsel to apply their updated charge assessment and bail policies directing consideration of whether the accused or victim identifies as an Indigenous person and whether public interest considerations and circumstances specific to Indigenous persons apply
• reducing the need for police in remote detachments and circuit court locations to lay informations and appear as prosecutor on weekday, daytime bail hearings
• increasing efficiency through standardized, centralized operations for scheduling and documentation
• reducing the need for lawyers to travel to different court locations, and reducing time lawyers spend waiting for bail hearings to proceed

Evaluation

The Court will evaluate the project to determine its long-term potential and the viability of extending it to additional locations, through 30, 60, and 90 day reviews.

How will bail hearings work in the Northern Region?

As described in CRIM 14 Practice Direction - Northern Bail Pilot Project, weekday bail hearings between 9:30 AM and 4:30 PM for adults and youths in the Court’s Northern Region will be conducted virtually. Judges will preside in virtual courtrooms using the Microsoft Teams videoconference platform. The accused person will appear by Teams videoconference or audioconference from a video-equipped police detachment or the Prince George Regional Correctional Centre. Otherwise, they will appear by telephone from a detachment.

Duty counsel and Crown counsel will appear by Teams videoconference or audioconference from their office or other quiet, private space with a neutral background.

See the Guide for appearing in the Provincial Court via Microsoft Teams for instructions on using Teams.

The virtual bail hearings will be conducted in two virtual courtrooms: VR1 for matters from the Prince George and Cariboo catchments; VR2 for those from the Peace and Northwest catchments. (Appendix A to CRIM 14 Practice Direction - Northern Bail Pilot Project lists courts within each catchment. Check the Appendix as these lists may change.)

The daily schedule for virtual bail hearings will be:

9:00AM – 9:30AM: The Northern Bail Judicial Case Manager will be available via Teams videoconference to triage matters and finalize the morning remand hearing list.

9:30AM – 12:00PM: Hearings for accused persons remanded in custody at PGRCC or other Correctional Centres in the Province or in custody at police detachments awaiting transport to PGRCC.

1:00PM – 4:30PM: Hearings for accused persons arrested overnight for whom charges have been approved.

Bail hearings that can’t be heard during court sitting hours will continue to be heard by audio or videoconference through the Justice Centre (paragraphs 3 to 5 of CRIM 05 Hearing of Bail Applications continue to apply). Ordinarily, a judicial justice will adjourn the bail hearing to the next virtual bail remand date at 1:00 PM for Crown counsel, rather than police, to conduct the bail hearing unless the accused person is released on bail or asks to proceed before the justice.

Forms

The Court expects counsel to use the Consent Requisition Form and the Consent Remand Form whenever possible to cancel a scheduled virtual bail hearing or appearance that will not be proceeding. This is essential to enable the Northern Bail judicial case manager to remove the matter from the hearing list and schedule another hearing. Forms should be emailed to Northern.VirtualBail@provincialcourt.bc.ca.

The CRIM 14 Practice Direction changes the procedure for submitting the Consent Forms in the Northern Region; however, all the other directions and procedures set out in 2013 CPD-1 CCFM Practice Direction and CRIM 08 Criminal Caseflow Management Rules Forms and Procedure continue to apply.

The Practice Direction contains detailed instructions for formatting and submitting documents for virtual bail and sentencing hearings in Appendix B. It is crucial for lawyers to follow these document protocols to make sure their documents are properly filed and available for the hearing.

CRIM 14 includes this chart summarizing form requirements, for counsel’s quick reference only:


More information
Guide to Virtual Proceedings (telephone and video) NP21
Guide for appearing in the Provincial Court using Microsoft Teams
Webinar on Court’s use of MS Teams
Q & A: Virtual hearings and MS Teams in the Provincial Court of BC – answers to questions posed during the webinar
Access to Court Proceedings Policy – includes information about public and media access to some virtual hearings
Policy on Use of Electronic Devices in Courtrooms – includes general prohibition on the recording or broadcasting of court proceedings unless authorized by the Court and consequences for breach