Attorney General David Eby says the COVID-19 pandemic exposed vulnerabilities in British Columbia’s legal system, weaknesses that have forged a unified effort to build a stronger, more modern justice administration.
Most courts in B.C. suspended operations last month due to the threats of the pandemic. Other than hearing emergency matters, the Court of Appeal, provincial and Supreme courts were not sitting, but are now increasingly using technology to hold hearings remotely, Eby said Friday.
“It’s happening in real time and if it weren’t in the middle of a pandemic it would be incredibly exciting, and what it is, is everybody working together out of a sense of urgency and necessity,” he said. “What’s more intriguing to me is there’s an appetite to look if there are different ways we can do things.”
Eby said the Court of Appeal is now preparing to hold hearings by Zoom conference calls and the Cullen Commission public inquiry into money laundering will use Microsoft Team during its proceedings.
“There’s a great appetite for us to be doing things differently and I am hearing it loud and clear from the courts, from lawyers, from people who use the courts,” he said.
Eby announced the appointment on Friday of two groups of legal organizations and experts to provide the government with advice to keep the justice system rolling throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and afterwards.
The members of more than two dozen groups, including the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police, The B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association, the RCMP and the First Nations Justice Council, will advise government on how to respond to urgent and arising issues in the system, he said.
A second group of more than one dozen people, including Beverley McLachlin, the former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, will recommend ways to reduce backlogs during and after the pandemic, said Eby.
“There’s been a fascinating and really important shift in the justice sector as a result of the pandemic,” he said. “A lot of the concerns and fears about the use of technology in courtrooms have made way for a sense of urgency around our need to be able to deliver court services to people.”
Craig Ferris, Law Society of B.C. president, said the groups will address B.C.’s immediate and long-term needs within the justice system.
He said he agreed with Eby’s comments about the pandemic exposing vulnerabilities in the justice system.
“What the crisis has highlighted is there are limits to what is currently available in the courts and the court system and the justice sector,” Ferris said. “As much as everybody’s trying to work hard to get everything working as best we can right now, closing the courts at all shouldn’t happen. We should have a system that is resilient enough that it can handle these types of issues.”
B.C.’s chief provincial court Judge Melissa Gillespie said in a statement last week she anticipates staged approaches to increasing court operations as video and audio conferencing capability grows.
The B.C. Supreme Court said on April 20 it will schedule telephone conference hearings for non-urgent matters that were automatically adjourned when the court suspended operations last month.
Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press