In March 2020, the Provincial Court of British Columbia responded to the COVID-19 pandemic by limiting court operations to urgent matters. Since then the Court has gradually expanded its operation while modifying both court procedures and physical spaces to protect the health of court users and reduce the number of people gathering in courthouses. By July 13, 2020, the BC Provincial Court had resumed all types of proceedings and was again accepting new filings.
The last four months have been a time of intense activity for the Court. The Chief Judge and the Court’s administrative team made hard decisions to reduce court operations. Then they developed and implemented alternate procedures to deal with urgent cases. At the same time, they planned and implemented strategies to not only resume operations safely and manage COVID-related backlog but to create lasting improvements. This eNews outlines the progress the Court has made.
Some in-person trials began on June 8, with the number of court locations conducting them expanding as the provincial government was able to implement safety measures. As of July 3, scheduled trials and hearings were proceeding in most locations where the court sits regularly unless a party was granted an adjournment or there was insufficient court time. In-person or remote proceedings have resumed in a number of circuit court locations, with matters being conducted by audio-conference where the community wishes to remain isolated or while work is ongoing to provide safe in-person facilities.
Filing new matters
Responding to the exigencies of COVID-19 enabled the Court to move forward much faster with various innovative measures it had been working towards before the pandemic, including expanding use of technology.
Court registries are now accepting in-person filings of all types, although the Court encourages the use of remote options – email, mail, and in some cases using fax or Court Services Online - to reduce the number of people in courthouses. In addition to being a safety measure, filing by email is a welcome convenience for self-represented litigants as well as lawyers, and the Court is pleased that the Ministry of the Attorney General’s Court Services Branch responsible for staffing court registries has been able to accommodate this change.
Conferences in virtual courtrooms
Most court appearances other than trials are now being conducted in virtual courtrooms by audio- or video-conferencing. The Court selected Microsoft Teams as the best conferencing platform for its work.
Although trials were adjourned this spring due to the pandemic, the Court was not idle. Judges conducted remote conferences in family, civil and criminal matters to explore whether early resolution was possible, and if not, to shorten the eventual trial by narrowing the issues.
The Court’s proactive use of settlement and pre-trial conferences has allowed some litigants to resolve their matters despite the reduction in court services due to COVID-19. In other cases, it has resulted in more focused hearings that need less court time, helping the Court manage the backlog of adjourned trials.
The experience gained with video technology during the pandemic will have lasting effects. The Court has begun using Teams for all bail hearings in Surrey and plans to roll out this technology for bail hearings in as many places in the province as possible. Some circuit court remand lists have been conducted by videoconference, as have family remand lists in various court locations. Moving forward, it may also be possible for some people to appear by videoconference in initial appearance courts.
While not suitable for every type of case or every litigant, video conferencing can play an important part in improving access to justice, particularly in a province as large as BC.
A large number of people attend court hearings at the same time for violation ticket matters. In order to keep everyone physically distant and safe, the Court “thought outside the box” and worked with government’s Court Services Branch (including the Sheriff Service) and Corporate Management Services Branch to identify alternate hearing locations and times for these ticket hearings. Holding traffic court in courthouses on weekends and evenings and in schools and universities this summer will allow the Court to assess the best way to deal with court sittings involving multiple parties while social distancing is necessary, as we work on challenges like providing interpreters for traffic court.
As the Court continues to look at ways to innovate and improve access to justice both during the COVID period and beyond, it has been exploring new ways to conduct traffic court, including using technology to increase efficiency, effectiveness, and convenience for disputants.
New procedure for COVID-related support order variations
People who have had trouble paying child or spousal support because their income has changed since January 2020 due to COVID-19 may want to apply to court to change or suspend their support order. Anticipating many of these applications, the Court has set up a new two-step process that first offers the parties mediation to see whether they can agree, and if not, an expedited hearing by telephone or video conference.
The Court has resumed all types of operations with a variety of safety measures and procedural modifications in place to protect court users’ health. We hope now to consolidate the steps we’ve taken toward recovering and improving court operations and to focus on further progress, but we will continue to be guided by public health advice.
We ask everyone to continue cooperating with our efforts to keep everyone safe. It helps to reduce the number of people in courthouses when litigants and lawyers use remote options for filing documents and when they use forms to adjourn matters by consent when nothing substantive will occur.
The risks associated with COVID 19 continue. Managing physical distancing and other safety protocols will take the continuing efforts of all court participants.
- Notice NP19 - details of how all types of court proceedings are currently being conducted
- Notice NP 22 – safety measures in courthouses and courtrooms
- Notice NP 21 – Guide to Remote Proceedings (telephone and video)
- Practice Direction FAM 08 - new procedure for COVID-related support order variations
- photographs of typical social distancing arrangements
- BC government health and safety protocols for courthouses
- eNews on the Court’s use of technology