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Court backlog due to COVID-19 could put justice in jeopardy, B.C. lawyer warns

Lawyers warn of huge delays as B.C. courts slowly reopen
As more B.C. businesses and services reopen, lawyers are warning the restart plan for the provincial court system is too slow and the delays to get it back on track could put hundreds of cases in jeopardy. Rumina Daya reports.

Trials are underway again at some B.C. Supreme Court courtrooms with new COVID-19 measures in place, but some lawyers are warning the province’s timeline to reopen the provincial court system could put justice in jeopardy.

Much of the court system, with the exception of urgent matters, came to a halt in mid-March amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Criminal lawyer Michael Shapray says tens of thousands of cases slated for criminal, family and small claims courts have been delayed and the resulting backlog could lead to dozens, if not hundreds, of cases being tossed if they aren’t heard in a timely manner.

B.C. lawyers worry about growing backlog with courts virtually shut down
B.C. lawyers worry about growing backlog with courts virtually shut down

“There’s absolutely going to be arguments brought in many cases…for the cases to be stayed, judicially stayed, because of a breach of someone’s right to have a trial within a reasonable time.”

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The Supreme Court’s R. v. Jordan decision in 2016 set deadlines of 18 months for provincial court trials and 30 months in the Supreme Court of Canada.

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Shapray notes that the Jordan ruling does accommodate for exceptional circumstances.

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“The issue is how long was reasonable for that response time to delay cases and how many cases should have been delayed in the interim,” he said.

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BC Attorney General David Eby acknowledges there is a serious backlog, which is being dealt with via online hearings. Forty provincial courtrooms and 50 supreme court courtrooms are now open across the province with more opening next week.

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With regards to the Jordan ruling, Eby said, “The question is now just how far beyond the timelines and what measures by governments are enough to satisfy the courts that we were doing what was necessary to get the courts open.”

“Right now I feel very comfortable that we’re taking the steps necessary to get courts open and many court and provincial government staff have taken heroic measures to make that happen.”

— With files from Andrew Russell