Judicial Justices’ essential contributions to the Court’s pandemic response

Posted to: 
Court
Judges
30/06/2020

The Judicial Justice Division is an integral and indispensable part of the Provincial Court of British Columbia. During the COVID-19 pandemic BC’s judicial justices and the staff who support them have worked tirelessly to fulfil their responsibilities, innovating and adapting where required, to keep courts accessible while ensuring the health and safety of court users.

Judicial justices are judicial officers who are assigned a variety of duties by the Chief Judge and exercise authority under various provincial and federal laws. To be appointed they must have practised law in Canada for at least five years or have a range of related experience. The Court currently has 34 judicial justices, 8 full time and 26 part time.

Some judicial justices preside in “Traffic Courts” throughout the Province, hearing traffic matters and ticketable offences under provincial laws, as well as municipal bylaw matters. They may also conduct small claims payment hearings. Others are assigned judicial duties at the Justice Centre, where they consider search warrant and other judicial authorization applications and hear applications for detention or bail. Judicial justices have adapted readily to changes required by COVID-19 in both types of work.

Associate Chief Judge Paul Dohm oversees the division, Administrative Judicial Justices Gerry Hayes and Lori Plater assist in the judicial administration of day-to-day operational matters for the Justice Centre and Traffic Division, respectively, and Justice of the Peace Administrator Kevin Purdy schedules the judicial justices’ sitting assignments.

Justice Centre

The Justice Centre is a 24 hours a day, 365 days a year operation. Throughout the pandemic, judicial justices have continued to work hard at the Justice Centre to deal with after-hours bail hearings by telephone or video, as well as applications from around the province for search warrants and other judicial authorizations for police investigations.

In recent years, innovative changes have transformed the work done by the Justice Centre. Technology was adapted to streamline its daytime and after-hours operation. A Court Services Branch registry was established to make its operation consistent with that of other BC courts.

Working with stakeholders, the Court created a process where evening and weekend bail matters are heard virtually in courts that are clerked, with procedures developed for remote video and telephone hearings. Crown prosecutors assess all matters submitted to them by police agencies as they do on weekdays, and they make submissions during bail hearings. Legal Aid duty counsel lawyers are available to assist everyone in custody and charged with criminal offences and speak for them at bail hearings.

As the COVID-19 virus transitioned from a significant health issue in some countries to a worldwide pandemic, enhanced cleaning practices and physical distancing measures were implemented, as recommended by public health authorities. Judicial justices were given the option to work remotely for their personal safety and to further reduce outside contacts at the Justice Centre.

In the following weeks, as more information became known about the transmission of the COVID-19 virus, the Chief Judge directed that “in person” applications were not to be made at any court location and must be submitted only to the Justice Centre by telecommunication. This resulted in a significant increase in the volume of applications to the Justice Centre, as all police agencies in BC were now submitting their applications there.

The impact on workload was significant. In May, 2019 the Justice Centre processed 1196 applications - both “in person” and by fax. In May, 2020 the Justice Centre processed 1504 applications – all by fax – an increase of 25%.

Some judicial justices worked remotely from their homes, but not everyone could work remotely. Court Services Branch staff and justices of the peace were needed in the Justice Centre’s registry, and a number of judicial justices continued to attend the Justice Centre for their shifts. Further enhanced cleaning and safe distancing of work stations were implemented. Disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer were provided throughout the workplace and in each of the hearing rooms. Non-surgical masks and face shields were also made available for staff and judicial justices.

The Court’s successful operational response to this unprecedented pandemic would not have been possible without the prodigious efforts of judicial justices, court staff and justices of the peace. Judicial justices who ordinarily sit in the Traffic Division also filled additional shifts, added to cope with the volume of applications. A special acknowledgement goes out to Justice of the Peace Administrator Kevin Purdy and Justice Centre Manager Farrahnaz Asin, who are managing and troubleshooting the Justice Centre’s pandemic response, and whose cooperation and many extra hours have been vital to its overall operation.

Finally, the leadership of veteran Gerry Hayes, the Administrative Judicial Justice who has piloted the Justice Centre through so many changes in the last few years, must be recognized. Judicial Justice Hayes is always calm under pressure and the person you would want to be with in an unprecedented world-wide pandemic. He will always make things work while taking care of the people he works with.

Traffic Court

Since March 16, 2020, the Provincial Court has adjourned hearings of traffic, ticket and bylaw matters heard by judicial justices in Traffic Court due to the health concerns raised by COVID-19. Fifty matters a day are typically scheduled into each traffic court and a significant number of people, including disputants, witnesses, and police officers, usually attend.

Recognizing the growing backlog of traffic tickets, the Court has been working with government for some time to develop a way to resume those cases safely and provide the necessary physical distancing. To begin with, the Court is introducing staggered trial times and, in some locations, alternate locations and different operating hours.

As set out in the Court’s June 22, 2020 Announcement, starting July 13, 2020, the Court will be resuming traffic hearings in alternate locations in Surrey, Richmond, Vancouver, Abbotsford, and Chilliwack. Hearings will be held in two universities and a secondary school at times when they’re not being used by students and teachers.

In addition, traffic courts are resuming in some court locations at times when they will otherwise be empty or have few court users. There will be evening sittings at Kelowna Provincial Court from 5:30 to 9:00 PM, and at Kamloops Provincial Court on three Saturdays in July. For two weeks in August, there will be staggered hearing times at the Prince George courthouse during the day, as the number of scheduled court activities there at that time is otherwise quite low.

Please see this Announcement for further details and other locations resuming traffic court, as we continue to explore other community-based sites for traffic court.

By moving to alternate locations in the summer months, the Court will be able to assess the extent to which it can return traffic court to the usual court locations and maintain physical distancing by using staggered start times.

In addition, the Court continues to explore new and innovative ways to conduct traffic court using technology. Associate Chief Judge Dohm and Administrative Judicial Justice Plater have been working with government to develop different strategies to manage the number of traffic tickets set for trial including facilitated early resolution and virtual hearings.

All the judicial justices sitting in traffic courts have demonstrated great flexibility and openness by sitting in alternate locations at alternate times during the summer months. Justice of the Peace Administrator Kevin Purdy has worked hard to support the Court and the judicial justices by finding alternative ways to schedule the judicial justices during this time of rapid change.

The BC government’s Court Services Branch (including BC Sheriff Services) and Corporate Management Services Branch have collaborated with the Court to identify alternate hearing locations and hearing times, and have agreed to support the Court by providing sheriffs and additional cleaning to ensure that holding traffic court in community locations is a viable option. Their willingness to move in this direction and the speed at which they have done so is a testament to the level of co-operation that is needed in these challenging times to find innovative and timely solutions to access to justice in BC.

The Court is grateful to Administrative Judicial Justices Hayes and Plater and their judicial justice colleagues, court staff, and justices of the peace for their diligence, perseverance, and dedication to public service during these challenging times.

Note: For information on applying to serve as a part-time judicial justice, see Appointment of Judicial Justices.