Lawyers in Nanaimo are concerned about the growing list of unheard cases due to coronavirus-caused court closures.
Regular court operations have been suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, although urgent and essential matters will be heard, according to the B.C. Ministry of Attorney General. Ten courts are acting as hub locations for urgent matters, with Victoria the designated site on Vancouver Island.
Chris Churchill, a criminal defence attorney in Nanaimo, said court participants are now in different locations, connecting remotely. There will be delays, he said.
“Anything that is not urgent, and that pretty well means anything that is out of custody, has just been pushed down the road for about three months, just basically a rollover adjournment,” Churchill told the News Bulletin.
He is worried about the backlog once the pandemic is over and said it will be an adjustment. Resources will be taxed, but the court system will sort it out, he said.
“I’m sure there’ll be some problems and a touch of chaos,” said Churchill. “We’ve never done this before, so it literally is changing day by day, especially in the early days, almost hour by hour, as courthouses were shutting down and as the system was trying to come to terms with this. It really does remain to be seen how the machine is going to work when you start to fire it up again.”
Greg Phillips, a civil litigation lawyer, has six cases in the coming months that will be adjourned and he anticipates a huge backlog just based on sheer number of cases being pushed back. People are disappointed when they’ve been waiting, sometimes for years, for their day in court, only to see it bumped, he said.
“Certainly with our ICBC injury clients, a number of those people have been waiting a long time to basically have their case resolved, either by settlement or through the courts,” said Phillips. “So that’s created a lot of additional anxiety for them not knowing when this is finally going to be over … a lot of these people have been without income because of injuries that have prevented them from returning to work or working as much. So it’s a financial burden as well as an emotional one.”
Nick Greer, a family law attorney, said it’s hard for people going through family law issues during the pandemic and people in his field are trying to negotiate.
“There are quite a few lawyers in Nanaimo right now who are trying to resolve things out of court wherever possible,” said Greer. “We run the mediation hub here as well, so that is still one option that is open to parties who are facing issues with children or property issues. So we can still resolve things outside of the court process.”
Dan McLaughlin, B.C. Prosecution Service spokesperson, said the pandemic has impacted how the service manages its caseload and it “continues to exercise its prosecutorial discretion on a case-by-case basis in accordance with its policies and the various principles set out in the Criminal Code.”
He said the number of matters proceeding to trial has been “greatly reduced,” but bail hearings and bail reviews are continuing to be conducted.
“The [prosecution service] recognizes that we must do everything in our power not to increase the inmate and remand population unnecessarily,” McLaughlin said. “That is particularly true in the face of the current public health emergency.”
When asked about whether a strategy or plan was being developed to address the backlog, the ministry said it will continue to monitor the situation and work with its partners to maintain access to justice. While the ministry has suspended time limitation periods, it said that doesn’t apply to criminal matters that are the responsibility of the Department of Justice Canada. The justice department didn’t comment on time limitations, but in an e-mail, spokesman Ian McLeod, said the Canadian government is working to ensure, where possible, that its cases progress in a way that respects public health requirements, so as to reduce the eventual backlog.
McLeod said the government is also continuing to appoint federal judges to bolster capacity of courts when regular operations resume. These include two recent appointments to the B.C. Supreme Court.
Phillips said he doesn’t know how courts can remedy the situation, but hopes it leads to change.
“So far, the courts have been willing to consider other options like video, or telephone hearings and things like that,” said Phillips. “So I think it might be part of the kick the legal industry has needed to get itself into the 21st century.”