'A very different world': Alberta courts adapting to COVID-19 pandemic

The wheels of justice have a long-standing reputation for grinding along slowly, but the COVID-19 pandemic has caused that to change at lightning speed in Alberta.

Court of Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Mary Moreau held a media availability Tuesday to detail the transformations that have already occurred in Alberta’s justice system, and what other changes are anticipated.

Even the news conference itself signaled a new way of doing things. 

Moreau sat at a desk located in the large ceremonial courtroom at the Edmonton courthouse. There was a large package of sanitary hand wipes beside her. Only a CBC pool-feed camera operator and a still photographer were in the room, both located a safe distance away. 

Media from across the province asked Moreau questions remotely. 

She called it “a very different world.”

“This place is a bit of a lonely place … because there’s very few people around,” Moreau said.

“I get into my car in the morning. I drive to work. I get into the parkade. There is the Purell in the elevator.  And I walk down to my office where there’s just nobody around except for the occasional visit by those who are emergency roster judges who are keeping a very respectful distance from all of us.”

“There’s nobody around” in the Edmonton courthouse, Chief Justice Mary Moreau of the Court of Queen’s Bench told media Tuesday. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

Moreau said the changes began on March 12 when the Court of Queen’s Bench suspended jury selection and jury trials. 

Since then, 13 judicial centres across the province have been collapsed into four hub centres in Edmonton, Calgary, Lethbridge and Red Deer.

Five emergency duty judges are on a roster in Edmonton. Five others are available in Calgary. 

Judges at all three levels of court — provincial, Queen’s Bench and the Alberta Court of Appeal — are hearing only urgent matters, and the public has been advised to stay away from courthouses. 

“What we were trying to do was essentially empty our courthouses of all but very essential services,” Moreau said, calling courthouses “potential Petri dishes for the development of contagions.”

Moreau noted that on a typical pre-pandemic day in Calgary, 2,200 people visited the courthouse there. Last week, 200 entered the building and she hopes to reduce that number even further.  

Technology leads the way 

 Alberta Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer signed an order last week allowing courts to conduct more and more hearings remotely.

Last Thursday, two Edmonton women were sentenced in what was an Alberta first. Only the judge and clerk were in the courtroom. The lawyers and media watched remotely through a web application and the two accused appeared by CCTV from the Edmonton Remand Centre.

“This was a success and it has encouraged us to move forward more aggressively to remote hearings,” Moreau said. “We’re becoming more proficient in a remote world.”

Other changes include the expansion of an email filing option for applications and court documents and swearing affidavits remotely so the officiant and the person who swears the affidavit don’t have to be in the same room. 

Lawyers now have the option of filling out an online application to get an urgent case in front of a judge quickly. 

Moreau said last week in Edmonton, 88 urgent applications were filed and reviewed by a triage judge. Sixty-two of the cases were confirmed as urgent and were heard last week.

Moreau hopes Alberta’s court system will eventually become paperless, allowing judges, lawyers and members of the public to view an entire case file electronically.  

“The tragedy of the crisis has led to the urgency of putting into place some IT solutions which will be in place for the long pull and effect some really fundamental changes in how we do our work in the court,” she said. 

A few weeks into the pandemic, Moreau is now trying to look to the future. She’s concerned about what will happen when the province returns to a more normal situation, given the backlog that will be inevitable. 

“It’s certainly why I want to move our ship further out of the harbour we’ve been in for the last three weeks, into the less urgent matters,” she said, “clearing the decks for what will be a time we’re going to have to prioritize our criminal trials and our criminal in-custody matters.”

Moreau pointed to the Supreme Court of Canada’s so-called Jordan decision that states a case in a superior court should reach its conclusion no longer than 30 months from the time a person is charged.

“I make no bones that the Jordan problem has gotten worse because we’ve had to adjourn a number of criminal trials from March 16 to May 1,” Moreau said.

“My view is that the clock is not running [right now]; however, once we are back in gear, in quasi-normal circumstances, there is some uncertainty as to how long we will have as individual courts to move towards getting matters on for trial.”

In the meantime, Moreau encouraged lawyers to try to resolve as many cases as possible without going to trial. She indicated the changes that are being made now will affect the province’s legal landscape permanently. 

“Ironically, as the pandemic heightens, so does our ability to increase access to justice remotely,” she said. 

“We’re going to continue to be proactive.”

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