After months of being shut down due to the COVID-19 crisis, Ontario courts are seeing a gradual return to in-person operations as of Monday, July 6th. In order to protect the many individuals that are involved in courthouse operations on a daily basis, courts across Canada were seen to halt operations including all hearings and trials for the time being, with some processes being adapted to virtual platforms, and discussions of modifying some civil case procedures permanently.
In June, some courts including the Supreme Court of Canada resumed hearings on the virtual videoconferencing platform, Zoom, in order to align with the COVID-19 restrictions and continue hearing cases1.
In order to manage the extensive backlog of cases that would only be exacerbated by the COVID-19 shutdown, Ontario’s Attorney General Doug Downey proposed the possibility of removing juries for most civil trials, which could help adapt to the changing needs of the legal sectors and respect restrictions for public health. As courts begin to reopen, the priority will be to evolve their processes in order to resolve backlogged cases while keeping in mind the practical obstacles that remain, such as physical distancing and gathering limits.
For clients involved in the lengthy legal processes, the lack of clarity and stress around their trial and hearing dates is sure to be relieved with a modified process that could expedite procedures to up to twice the speed with trials without a jury. However, for lawyers this option may be undesirable. Many lawyers believe that a jury of peers is a fairer system of judgement representative of Canada’s population. As noted by Justice Frederick Myers, civil case jury trials “seem to exist in Ontario solely to keep damages awards low”. However, there is the possibility that the absence of a jury could lead to increased use of appeals in the civil litigation system. A jury’s reasoning is not very susceptible to legal challenge, and therefore challenging decisions involving a jury is not particularly common. In contrast, appeals from decisions involving a single Judge are common.2
As the legal community debates what changes the Province’s legal system and processes are appropriate and the Province gradually opens up, precautions are being implemented to safely phase-in appearances. Civil claims, small claims, and family law matters can be filed remotely online in order to limit individuals at courthouses. Furthermore, increased cleaning, plexiglass barriers, physical distancing, and hand sanitizer stations are some of the measures that are being implemented at Court facilities. Upon arrival at an Ontario courthouse, a COVID-19 screening questionnaire must be completed. This form is also accessible online and can be completed beforehand, the printed results of which must be presented at the entrance. A face covering is also required inside all Ontario courthouses3.
To explore the alternatives and seek the best advice for how to proceed with your legal matters in these changing circumstances, contact us at OWS law.
Blog post written by Oshish Ungras our summer volunteer!
1 “Supreme Court goes Zoom: court to start virtual hearings during pandemic closure” from CBC; Accessed at: https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/supreme-court-virtual-hearings-1.5596520
2 “Ontario Attorney General seeks input on removing juries from civil trials” from Canadian Lawyer; Accessed at: https://www.canadianlawyermag.com/practice-areas/litigation/ontario-attorney-general-seeks-input-on-removing-juries-from-civil-trials/330370
3 “COVID-19: Reopening courtrooms” from Government of Ontario; Accessed at: https://www.ontario.ca/page/covid-19-reopening-courtrooms