The head of a lawyers association supports changes to Saskatchewan’s court schedule that include delaying jury trials at the Court of Queen’s Bench because of the novel coronavirus.
All jury trials scheduled to run between March 16 and May 30 are postponed in hopes of limiting the spread of COVID-19. Jury trials already underway are expected to proceed as scheduled.
Lisa Watson, one of the presidents of the Saskatoon Criminal Defence Lawyers Association, said “the focus right now has to be on public health.”
The order from Chief Justice Martel Popescul mitigates a potentially negative situation for witnesses, jurors, court staff and the accused, Watson said.
While superior court jury trials are postponed, an accused person has the option to re-elect and be tried by a judge alone.
Asked whether postponements will have a lingering effect on trial schedules, Watson said: “there’s no doubt this is going to have an ongoing impact.”
There is a 30-month deadline for Court of Queen’s Bench trials, according to the Supreme Court of Canada’s R. v. Jordan decision from 2016. Provincial court trials have an 18-month timeline.
“I cannot imagine a case being thrown out because of a delay,” Watson said, describing the COVID-19 pandemic as “exceptional circumstances.”
Defence lawyer Aaron Fox said if there’s a return to normal in a few weeks, there shouldn’t be an insurmountable backlog of cases. If COVID-19’s impacts continue into June, then Fox said he’s expecting a big difference.
“We haven’t had anything like this before,” Fox said.
In theory, Fox said courts could sit on weekends or during evenings to catch up. The court sitting schedule could also extend into the summer.
Provincial court trials and preliminary hearings are proceeding as scheduled, though the decision is being revisited this week.
Video and audio appearances are encouraged.
The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal has no plans to cancel or reschedule hearings, according to a statement from Chief Justice Robert Richards.
Submissions can be made via phone, and the court is working on a video-audio link system.
Confused about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Health officials say the risk is low for Canadians but warn that this could change quickly. They caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are asked to self-isolate for 14 days in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others.
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. And if you get sick, stay at home.
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