Virtual criminal courts will continue operating as Ontario prepares to go into a lockdown, although jury trials are suspended.
“In the provincial court, nothing has changed,” said Barrie criminal lawyer Gary Pickard.
Pickard said there have been some hiccups, but the virtual court system introduced this summer after a pandemic-induced shutdown for several months has seen continual improvements.
In fact, he said, there have been hearing dates made available in the Ontario Court of Justice in Barrie early in the new year in provincial courts.
Restrictions for non-essential businesses, like social gathering caps, do not apply to essential services like courts.
Hearings are expected to continue in Ontario Superior Court virtually, but there will be no jury trials at least until February in Simcoe County and all areas that are not designated green zones.
In a notice to the profession issued this week, Chief Justice Chief Geoffrey B. Morawetz announced the Ontario Superior Court will plot a careful course ahead as the province goes into lockdown on Boxing Day.
Non-jury trials will be held virtually, “unless it is absolutely necessary to hold the proceedings in-person,” Morawetz stated in Tuesday’s notice.
“This applies to proceedings throughout the province and will remain in effect until the lockdowns in Northern and Southern Ontario are lifted or until further notice of this Court,” he wrote. “Counsel and parties should only request in-person hearings where absolutely necessary and I have requested all judicial officers, when exercising their authority, to only hold in-person hearings where absolutely necessary.”
Meanwhile, jury selections are once again on hold.
The suspension of jury trials until at least Jan. 29 in place in all areas of the province except Green Zones was implemented earlier this month. There has been no jury selection, meanwhile, since Nov. 23.
“The health and safety of the public and all court participants, including the judiciary, jurors, court staff, litigants and witnesses, continues to be our top priority," Emilie Smith, spokesperson for the Ministry of the Attorney General, stated in an email.
"We will continue to act on the guidance of public health experts and work with justice partners to establish new and innovative ways of administering justice, including supporting new ways of conducting proceedings, more remote proceedings and moving more services online,” added Smith.
She noted there has been a heavy reliance on the use of remote technology to conduct proceedings virtually as much as possible.
Meanwhile, courthouses have been equipped to safely manage those who do need to appear in person and mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission.
Enhanced safety protocols cover a suite of measures from mandatory entrance screening and enhanced cleaning to the installation of plexiglass barriers and physical distancing markers, she said.
Marg. Bruineman, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, barrietoday.com