TORONTO Short-term measures aimed at reducing risks related to the novel coronavirus in Ontario courts will likely have a long-lasting impact on the province’s justice system, some experts said Friday.
All new jury trials have been temporarily put on hold, and lawyers, witnesses and those accused of crimes have been told to stay home if they have been advised by medical authorities to do so, in light of growing concerns over the possible spread of COVID-19.
The Superior Court of Justice issued a number of precautions late Thursday and Friday, urging anyone participating in a civil, criminal or family court proceeding to alert the relevant authority if they have been told to self-isolate.
The court noted some matters can be carried out remotely or through a lawyer and said it was working to ensure the justice system remained accessible despite the restrictions.
“The safety of all who use and rely upon the court is essential. Equally important is continued access to the Ontario Superior Court of Justice should COVID-19 disrupt court operations,” the court said in a statement Friday.
“The court is working with the Ministry of the Attorney General on contingency planning in the event court operations are disrupted.”
It was not immediately clear Friday how many trials would be affected by the new measures, and jury trials already underway were allowed to continue, subject to the judge’s discretion.
But some legal experts warned the temporary freeze on new jury trials would cause a trickle-down of delays that could significantly affect future cases.
Daniel Brown, a Toronto criminal defence lawyer, said the strict time limits imposed on court cases by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2016 make allowances for “exceptional circumstances,” so any cases put on hold at this time likely won’t be in jeopardy.
“Cases delayed because of a pandemic would not be thrown out for delay due to those factors alone,” he said.
But the backlog caused by their postponement could push later cases beyond the court-mandated time frame, which set deadlines of 30 months for cases in Superior Court and 18 months for those in provincial court, he said.
“There may some good that can come from this,” Brown said. “It will force people to examine what is otherwise an archaic court process that can be modernized to reduce the amount of in-person court time.”
Questions remained Friday about the fate of trials proceeding without a jury, as well as other proceedings such as bail hearings and administrative appearances.
The provincial court, which handles the vast majority of criminal cases but does not carry out jury trials, said it is “urgently working” the Ontario government to “address the safety and well-being of the public and all court participants.”
Some experts called for more stringent measures, saying bold action now could help prevent much bigger disruptions down the line.
“We have to get ahead of this and if it means shutting everything down for weeks then let’s do that,” said John Struthers, president of the Criminal Lawyers Association.
Several trials at Toronto’s biggest courthouse were continuing as planned Friday, including a first-degree murder trial where jurors have been sequestered and deliberating since Monday.
“They don’t know that Disneyland is closed. They don’t know that Trudeau’s wife has COVID. They don’t know anything,” said Struthers, who is representing one of the accused. “If it goes any much longer, we’re going to have to make some decisions.”
Another first-degree murder trial _ that of 23-year-old Kalen Schlatter, accused of sexually assaulting and strangling a young woman in 2017 _ was also carrying on as usual amid the changes. The last witness testified Friday, with closing arguments expected early next week.
“We will be completing this trial, hopefully as quickly as possible,” said the presiding judge, Ontario Superior Court Justice Michael Dambrot.
Concerns over the novel coronavirus also affected other spheres of the justice system Friday, with the Law Society of Ontario calling off the solicitor licensing exam scheduled for next week. The society’s tribunal also announced it was halting all disciplinary hearings until at least May.
The province’s small claims court said late Friday all hearings would be cancelled as of March 16. Plaintiffs with approaching limitation periods were urged to file their claims online.
Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of the Attorney General said the department continues to monitor the evolving situation and is working with the courts on “preparedness planning for the justice sector.”
“This is a precautionary measure to keep the public, court users and staff safe,” Jenessa Crognali, spokeswoman for Doug Downey, said in a statement.