A leader for fifty years

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Enactment of the Provincial Court Act in 1969 created the Provincial Court of British Columbia. For the last fifty years, this Court’s focused efforts to provide an accessible, fair, efficient, and innovative system of justice have made it a leader in Canada.

The new Court quickly distinguished itself in the area of judicial ethics and education. In 1976, it and the Cour de Quebec were the first two courts in Canada to adopt codes of judicial ethics. Since then, the Court has adopted Ethical Principles for Judges, providing more detailed guidelines. When complaints are received about a judicial officer’s conduct they are examined, and in keeping with its commitment to transparency, the Court publishes summaries of the results in its annual reports.

Early chief judges, especially Chief Judge Lawrence Goulet, made continuing education a high priority. He ensured the Court’s education conferences used interactive adult education techniques before they became common in judicial education. In the early ’90s, Justice Douglas Campbell, then a BC Provincial Court judge, pioneered social context education in Canadian courts, and, by the 2000s, Judge Jean Lytwyn was introducing asynchronous distance education to Canadian judges, enabling them to discuss hypothetical problems online with colleagues from across the country.

Since the 1970’s BC Provincial Court judges have volunteered to organize twice yearly education programs for their colleagues on current legal issues, changes in the law, and subjects of particular public concern like sexual assault trials, trauma-informed practice, mental health issues and decisions affecting children. Attendance at these programs is mandatory.

Judicial mediation is taken for granted today. But, in the early ’90s, the Court was the first trial court in North America to introduce mandatory judicial mediation in small claims settlement conferences. As a result, the US National Association for Court Management awarded the Court a Justice Achievement Award for Court Innovation in 1993. The Court soon incorporated judge-mediated case conferences in its child protection and family law cases as well.

A leader in both transparency and the use of business intelligence, in 2004, the Court developed operational standards to assess its ability to manage its caseload effectively. These standards represent objective goals it strives to meet with available resources. The Court reports its progress in meeting those goals twice a year in detailed annual reports and in semi-annual Time to Trial reports, both posted on its website.

In the 2000s, the Court also began responding to a range of needs by collaborating with communities to establish specialized sentencing courts using a therapeutic approach. Working with integrated community services to help offenders deal with their underlying problems, these courts include Vancouver’s drug and community courts, Victoria’s Integrated Court, domestic violence court projects, and six Indigenous and First Nations courts around the province. The Court has announced the opening of a seventh Indigenous sentencing court in Williams Lake in the spring of 2020.

The Court has embraced the use of technology to increase access to justice and improve efficiency. For example, judicial justices conduct evening and weekend bail hearings by video from the Justice Centre in Burnaby; people in custody make some court appearances by closed circuit television; and Judicial Case Managers receive real-time notice when judges finish their court lists and are available to hear certain cases from other courthouses by video.

The Court has also been at the forefront in the use of digital communications for public engagement. It offers a colourful, plain language website that received more than 1.1 million page views in 2019. It was the first Canadian court to post weekly eNews articles in a blog format on its website, and to connect with the public in a two-way Twitter account with a conversational tone. In 2019 eNews had almost 95,000 page views and won a Canadian Law Blogs Award for Best Blogs and Commentary.

In 2016 and ’17, the BC Provincial Court introduced Canadian courts to live Twitter Town Halls where Chief Judge Crabtree answered tweeted questions from the public. In 2019, Chief Judge Gillespie hosted BC’s Chief Justice Robert Bauman and Jennifer Muller, a former self-represented litigant, at #A2JChatBC, the Court’s third Twitter Town Hall. This event was named one of the year’s Best A2J Resources by the Canadian Law Blogs Awards.

The Court’s jurisdiction is among the broadest of any provincial court in Canada. Its judges and judicial justices deal with almost 200,000 new criminal, youth, family, child protection, civil, traffic and ticket cases a year in more than 80 locations.

For more, see the Court’s 50th anniversary video. Visit provincialcourt.bc.ca, subscribe to eNews, and follow the Court on Twitter @BCProvCourt.

Note: a version of this article was published in the February 2020 issue of BarTalk, the magazine of the Canadian Bar Association BC Branch.