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Court of King's Bench: 2022 brings a new name, streamlined procedures brought on by pandemic

Martel Popescul is chief justice for Court of King's Bench. (CBC - image credit)
Martel Popescul is chief justice for Court of King's Bench. (CBC - image credit)

The obvious change is the name: Court of King's Bench.

Less obvious are the behind-the-scenes changes at the province's superior court that came into effect over the past year, from the number of its judges to how applications are heard in chambers.

It has been a tumultuous time.

With the death of Queen Elizabeth II this year and the succession of King Charles III the name of the Court of Queen's Bench changed automatically to the Court of King's Bench.

Chief Justice Martel Popescul says the other changes, although not as immediately visible, affect the operation of the court.

For starters, the number of judges increased by five positions over the past two years, the first increases since 1998.

"In 1980 there were 29 judges plus a chief for a total of 30," Popescule said, adding three more judges were added to the court in 1998.

"In April of 2021 we were awarded two other judges … and then in March of 2022, we were awarded three, including an associate chief justice position, which we've never had in this province before."

Popescul said the recent increases, which brought the number of judges to 38, will allow the court to "handle things in a more timely fashion."

The pandemic, which delayed some jury trials and forced lawyers and judges to work remotely by video, led to procedures that are likely to remain.

'Chambers blitz'

Chambers, the forum where applications are heard in the space between a case starting — say, a charge is laid — and a trial starts plays a quiet but pivotal role in the operation of the court.

"Everything that happens in the meantime that requires a judge to rule on — whether documents have been provided properly, whether a person needs to answer questions, that examination for discovery, or the dozens of other things that occur — all of those things are put on a chambers list," he said.

To get through approximately 1,000 applications in June, 2020  Popescul says, the court initiated a "chambers blitz" to clear out a building backlog of applications. The court set all the applications for specific times and then limited the parties to 30 minutes.

"Time limiting chambers turned out to be a good idea. So what we've now done is we've instituted a practice directive where chambers is now limited to 30 minutes per side. The 30 minutes we gave them during the blitz was 30 minutes all in," he said.

"But we found that sometimes if you focus people and say this is the amount of time that you have, they'll focus their arguments."

Future challenges

Popescul says judges are consistently challenged as society and the law evolve.

Saskatchewan has a system of pre-trial conferences that give lawyers and clients the opportunity to resolve matters without going to trial. The conferences happen on the eve of trials.

"Probably 60 to 70 per cent of the cases that we do are resolved at a pre-trial conference," Popecule said. "So a large number of them.

"But the flip side of that is the ones that don't get settled are really difficult ones — the ones with some very acute complex issues — and they're essentially the types of cases that nobody could figure out a solution to otherwise they would have been resolved," he said.

"So those come to our desk and the nature of those decisions becomes very complex to deal with."