Law courts in Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer and Lethbridge are slowly reopening, but they won’t operate the same way they did pre-pandemic.
At least four courtrooms have been modified to protect against COVID-19. They now feature transparent barriers between the justice and counsel.
It’s a move defence lawyer Ajay Juneja appreciated when he represented his client, Tasha Mack, at one of the first in-person sentencings at the Court of Queen’s Bench in months.
“Everyone I was with felt extremely safe. There were appropriate measures put in place to make sure everyone was an appropriate distance apart. There were plastic barriers in place to prevent any type of transmission from one person to another.”
Two courtrooms were used for the trial, one for the justice, clerk, and lawyers, as well as a handful of people in the gallery. The rest — including family members of the victim, toddler Anthony Raine — were in another courtroom, connected via video conferencing to allow for social distancing.
Damian Rogers, president of the Alberta Crown Attorney’s Association, said courtrooms cannot be full like they were pre-COVID.
“Gallery seating is drastically reduced. That’s the area for public, media and so forth to attend at a trial. In the courtroom that I saw a mockup of, there was only about six seats available compared to 50 or 60 in previous times.”
Because of the restricted space in court, as well as rules around mass gatherings, jury trials are not proceeding at this time.
“The Court of Queen’s Bench has opened a very small number of what they’re calling ‘resumption courtrooms’ for trial matters. They’re only going to be dealing with judge alone trials, not jury trials,” Rogers explained.
Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Mary Moreau said the courts had to transition online during the shutdown, something which they were not previously set up to do.
She noted it’s difficult to host court outside of a courtroom, because everything needs to be recorded, but a video conferencing program called Webex is now allowing them to do just that — thanks to a $27 million injection from the provincial government.
With cases moving forward online, lawyers, the accused, family members and media were able to virtually take part from home.
To facilitate that, documents which normally needed to be submitted on paper are now allowed to be filed electronically.
“I welcome the changes, I think we actually should have gone to this a long time ago. It makes it a lot easier for lawyers to attend court proceedings from their office. It’s definitely been a lot more streamlined,” Juneja said.
He believes the majority of cases will progress online, unless there’s a reason that’s not feasible.
“I expect cases where there’s going to be complicated sentencing, where victims are going to want to read their victim impact statements, cases where live testimony is required.
“It would be very difficult to judge the credibility of a witness via Webex.”
Moreau said normally 2,200 people go through the Edmonton courthouse on a daily basis, and precautions are being taken in lockstep with the province when it comes to a slow resumption of in-person hearings.
She mentioned a few other steps the courts are taking to protect people: “The need for screening as you come into the courthouse. Also, some social distancing cues on the floor, directional arrows, etc.”
Rogers said while he’s pleased with the steps being taken in courtrooms, he’s still left with some concerns regarding the practicality of physical distancing in more public spaces.
“That I think is going to be very difficult to maintain social distancing, in the lineups to get in and go through security, at the courthouses that have perimeter security, and then to check in with people for legal aid and other types of services available at the courthouse.”
Plus, Rogers noted, at the end of the day — you’re relying on people to follow the rules.
“We need people to comply with the directions that are being given and courthouses are unpredictable places. So I think we’re cautiously optimistic that we can deal with this in a way that’s safe and that gets matters moving again. It will still be at a reduced rate compared to what we were doing back in February and before.”
Moreau is hopeful the new online options will help the courts funnel through the backlog of cases currently facing the justice system.