Legislation in the time of COVID: How the pandemic radically reoriented Ontario’s justice program

When Erin Townley had to testify against the guy who virtually killed her, she took solace in the fact the COVID-19 pandemic meant she could do it from her own home.

In 2018, Townley experienced been using with a team of cyclists all-around Lake Ontario, increasing cash for pancreatic cancer, when the driver of a grey Nissan veered onto the highway shoulder and slammed into them.

Townley was struck so tough she lost consciousness. When she woke up, she was cradling her fractured forearm. 

An additional rider, Jeff Vervaeke, was not so blessed. He bounced off the Nissan’s windshield, flew into the air, and was located a shorter distance absent, lying in a pool of blood and gasping for air.

He was rushed to a Kingston, Ont., medical center, but died five times later on.

“I basically found [the trial] experience, from a witness perspective, to be considerably less overwhelming,” reported Townley, whose testimony aided convict the driver, Robert Saunders, of hazardous driving resulting in bodily harm and risky driving leading to demise.

“It was easier to do that when I was sitting in my dining room, and experienced my animals all over me [as] a supply of ease and comfort and support.”

‘A very jarring transition’

In the time amongst the fatal crash and the ensuing trial, COVID-19 compelled Ontario’s justice system — and some others close to the world — into uncharted, occasionally choppy on the internet waters.

As in-human being issues floor to a halt, courts and tribunals were outfitted for virtual hearings. Ontario Attorney Basic Doug Downey rolled out a quick $1.3 million for laptops, digital non-public networks (VPNs) and other technological know-how.

Guiding the scenes, reveals and other courtroom files had been currently being digitized, a massive change for a method that relied on paper copies for just about everything. 

As Downey mentioned in April 2020, the limitations imposed by COVID-19 experienced “modernized the justice procedure 25 years in 25 times.”

“It was in the beginning a fairly jarring changeover,” reported Michael Spratt, a prison defence lawyer in Ottawa.

“The courts have been … forced to move from the 1980s or 1990s suitable up to present day-day criteria essentially right away. Prior to the pandemic most items, if not every little thing, was completed in individual.”

The pandemic’s initially wave, Spratt recalled, was specifically chaotic. Defence attorneys found by themselves unable to reach clients as jails locked down to stop outbreaks. Bail hearings took location in excess of the cell phone. Trials had been postponed.

Ottawa lawyer Michael Spratt says the COVID-19 pandemic pressured Ontario’s authorized program to modernize alone pretty much ‘overnight.’ (Jean Delisle/CBC)

But gradually the wrinkles smoothed out, Spratt said, and some rewards became apparent — like the point selected witnesses, this sort of as professionals, could be patched in remotely as a substitute of perhaps remaining flown in terrific distances at substantial charge.

Defence counsel can far more quickly represent clients in “considerably-flung” places, Spratt said, whilst simple matters like pleading responsible for a probation violation can be performed remotely.

But Spratt mentioned the digitization of court documents has been most likely the most substantive transform, letting cases to carry on devoid of “razing a modest forest.”

“It truly is regrettable it essential a world-wide pandemic to get rid of the fax machine and shift to e-mail. But nonetheless it really is took place, and that’s a optimistic factor.”

Additional engineering, extra issues?

With any shift of this magnitude, even though, there have been stumbles — some amusing, other individuals fewer so.

For Cornwall, Ont., relatives and felony attorney Neha Chugh, her “worst day” in virtual court docket arrived when her toddler barged into the nursery she’d outfitted as a makeshift office environment.

“Anyone on the Zoom get in touch with is watching and laughing, because they all can see him. So I stand up to remove him — and I am donning a blazer on top rated and pyjama shorts and fuzzy socks on the bottom,” reported Chugh. “It was rather a spectacle.”

An additional time, she was making “extremely really serious submissions on a pretty really serious motion” when she realized her shirt wasn’t particularly arrayed the way it was supposed to be.

Regardless of those wardrobe malfunctions, Chugh champions the online changeover and the simple fact it’s created court docket extra available for her clients, a lot of of whom are spread out across eastern Ontario.

But even one thing like a straightforward shirt combine-up belies a probable dilemma: digital hearings can deficiency the “solemnity” of people in particular person.

“That’s what anxieties me,” Chugh said. “People today hold out a long time for their working day in courtroom. And if it is not anything they expected it to be in terms of the seriousness, it can be a letdown.”

That solemnity hasn’t always been apparent to viewers beaming in for proceedings, both. Because the on the net changeover, judges have experienced to remind men and women streaming courtroom matters with no crystal clear consent is prohibited, like in the course of the recent bail hearings for the leaders of the Ottawa convoy profession.

Broadcasting hearings can be a grievous violation of a person’s appropriate to privacy, stated Toronto-based defence law firm Jessyca Greenwood, specially when the case includes sexual assault.

But the actuality it really is taking place at all demonstrates the limitations of movie conferencing technological know-how like Zoom, which caps how many viewers can log on at once, Greenwood notes. And with on line court docket, physical barriers like the dimensions of a courtroom or one’s distance from the courthouse should really, in idea, be a matter of the past.

“I understand why it finished up getting broadcast, simply because there were capacity limits and far more individuals required to see it than were were in a position to,” stated Greenwood, who sits on the government for the Criminal Lawyers’ Association, the country’s largest criminal legislation corporation.

“It is a little something that we are heading to have to deal with as the use of technology expands.”

Tamara Lich appears at her bail hearing on March 7. Many of the bail hearings for the ‘Freedom Convoy’ organizers were streamed on the net, which is prohibited in Canada without the need of a judge’s convey consent. (Alexandra Newbould/The Canadian Press)

An ‘end-to-end’ electronic long run

Whilst that enlargement has progressively been rolling out, both of those Greenwood and Spratt still worry about marginalized, susceptible clients who can’t expend hours on a Zoom simply call or who live a privacy-challenged existence in a shelter or team house.

There have been instances above the earlier two yrs, Greenwood said, the place people have run out of minutes on their mobile phone and disconnect before a choose can talk to them — with most likely significant repercussions.

“If a particular person will not make their look the courtroom can situation a bench warrant for them, which signifies they get arrested,” reported Greenwood.

“We need to have to imagine about … not just all the methods attorneys can reward from this, but how [we] actually make it available for purchasers.”

There are “very simple options,” she provides, like private iPad stations at courthouses wherever consumers can use Zoom to obtain their hearings.

I am quite biased, just since of my personal experience. [But] I think on-line court docket performs good.– Erin Townley

It’s probable those people are on the way: in February, the legal professional general’s office set apart $65 million for items like courthouse pc upgrades, new audio-visible technological know-how and workers schooling.

That announcement adopted an earlier pledge in November 2021 to create an “finish-to-conclusion digital process” that would transfer all kinds of program lawful tactics on the web, from scheduling hearings and filing files to paying expenses and accessing court docket conclusions.

As for Townley, herself an Alberta-based mostly household attorney, having the virtual witness box in the dangerous driving trial — as an alternative of scheduling two weeks off operate and flying out to Ontario — has marketed her on the benefits of on the internet justice.

“I am very biased, just due to the fact of my own practical experience. [But] I think on-line court functions terrific,” she claimed. “From a selfish viewpoint, I beloved it.”