As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to influence the ways of life for many Canadians, it appears that the court system has succeeded in diving back into what was once normal proceedings. Ontario hit its highest daily record for confirmed coronavirus cases back in April at close to 700. The numbers have since decreased to less than 100 cases daily, which has given the courts the confidence to reopen back in July.
For many, this declining trend of new coronavirus cases has instilled confidence to begin regular activities. For others, opening businesses and public spaces such as courthouses could spell disaster in Ontario and surrounding cities.
If a person is scheduled to appear in person at an Ontario court house, there are now safety measures in place to create the safest environment possible while still maintaining efficiency. Ontario courts have adapted their courtrooms and waiting procedures with the pandemic in mind while also taking into account the judges, security, and lawyers that may have to attend on a consistent basis.
Despite the potential risk of infection or spread of COVID-19, it appears that Ontario courts were confident enough to return to business back in early July and remain confident even today. Embracing the ‘new normal’ as many have started to name it has not been easy for those going back to court, but it seems that the courts will stay open for business, even if it is not business as usual.
How Ontario Courts Have Adapted
As always, courts are public places and are open to the community. However, getting into a courtroom during this unprecedented time will have additional challenges. Whether a person is a lawyer, prosecutor, law official, accused or a witness, anyone who wants access into a courthouse will have to wear a face mask. There will also be temperature checks and screenings at the entrances to ensure the highest level of safety for those inside. Additional limitations on the number of people allowed to attend trials will also be imposed to adhere to applicable COVID-19 laws and guidelines.
Once admitted into a courthouse, it is clear that the Ontario courts people are returning to are not the same as the courts left in mid-March. Many spaces are separated by plexiglass barriers, such as the witness stand. Shared spaces like the witness stand are to be sanitized after each new appearance, and much of the courtroom’s occupancy has been limited to permit marked seats with safe spacing.
When the courts first began to reopen in early July, they severely limited what cases would be seen. Specifically, the Ontario Court of Justice only allowed two courtrooms to deal with criminal cases and a third courtroom for family court in the early stages of reopening. Other types of cases were either delayed or pushed to virtual mediums, which continue to be options.
The gradual reopening of courtrooms was to ensure that strict health and safety protocols could be followed while still respecting a person’s right to a speedy trial. Now that the courtrooms have been opened, the 149 courtrooms opened in July in 44 locations within the Superior and Ontario Courts of Justice will expand to more locations, resulting in an increase in the number of courtrooms into September and November.
What to Expect in a Court Proceeding
A key part of a legal case is that an accused person has the right to face their accuser at trial. This, of course, was unable to happen when the courts closed for months due to the spreading pandemic. Now, with the courts reopened, some are worried that they are going to be forced to go to court to meet this legal component.
However, as the Ontario courts first began to open, it was clear that it would be a gradual shift to in-person proceedings. Many court matters like pre-trial hearings, bail hearings, and guilty pleas now occur through online means, meaning that if a person did not feel safe or comfortable appearing in court due to concerns over COVID-19, there could be arrangements to allow them to participate remotely.
Since mid-March, the courts in Ontario have heard more than 21,000 calls related to legal matters over video, teleconference, and other virtual means. While the average number of virtual hearings and proceedings are expected to decrease now that courts are open, the online option for filing is still available for civil claims, small claims, and matters of family law.
How Attorneys are Feeling
For some, a court hearing may not be that much of an endeavor during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most people will have to go to their own court hearing, with minimal contact with other persons, and leave after a few hours or maybe a day. For attorneys, however, the reality of in-person court proceedings could be more dangerous.
“Many attorneys manage multiple clients at any given time, and the pandemic has not changed that,” said Attorney Steve Rastin from Rastin Law Trial Lawyers, “Attorneys are still busy and the shift to in-person court proceedings has only intensified that. Coupled with the confusing directions, inconsistent formatting, and overall hecticness of converting courts into coronavirus-adapted places, lawyers are looking at a much more nuanced profession.”
There is also the difficulty that comes with wearing masks and other facial protection, such as it being harder to be understood while speaking. This means that attorneys and those who are questioned may have difficulties being loud enough to be heard through masks and plexiglass, further complicating the in-person proceedings.
Moving Forward with Court Proceedings
Although reopening court houses will be a slow process, it appears that Ontario will continue to open its courts so long as it is safe to do so. With many safety precautions in place, such as requiring masks and many hand sanitizing stations throughout open courtrooms, it appears that the new normal will become just that; normal.
Attorneys, clients, and other common entities within Ontario courts have the option to be in person or online, an option that may continue into the Fall as the province continues to see new daily cases of COVID-19. For certain matters, it may be in a person’s best interest to stay at home instead of entering the public courthouse.
Of course, one of the best things a person can do if they are worried about their court case is to work with an experienced Ontario attorney. It is a confusing and unprecedented time for many, but with an attorney’s experience in legal matters before the pandemic, they could help a person understand the situation they may be entering. Additionally, many attorneys have made the switch from in-person proceedings to virtual options, which can give a person the ability to weigh each circumstance and how they want to continue with the advice of a lawyer.
Nevertheless, it appears that Ontario courts are far from returning to what they were before the coronavirus pandemic. Like many businesses, the courts are trying to adapt to a new normal. As more cases are heard in person, it appears that the backlog of cases will slowly dissipate as this part of life moves to return to a sense of normal that was last seen before the pandemic.