Halifax has still not found a venue to hold jury trials under COVID-19 protocols, leading Associate Chief Justice Patrick Duncan to adjourn all such cases for another month.
Duncan said all matters requiring a jury trial, including murder trials, will be further delayed until Sept. 23. Nova Scotia hasn't held a jury trial since March, although some jurisdictions outside of Halifax plan to start them next month.
"I'm satisfied that the government very well understands that the Jordan clock is ticking and that an answer must be found very soon," he said in court Thursday.
The Jordan rule says Supreme Court cases must be heard within 30 months, leaving out any defence-caused delays. Longer than that and the accused's right to a timely trial is violated — unless there are exceptional circumstances.
Most people agree that a global pandemic counts as an exceptional circumstance, but with the pandemic expected to last for months, or years, defence lawyers will eventually raise the issue.
Duncan said most justice centres in the province have established protocols so they can operate at a reduced capacity, but none have returned to pre-pandemic normal.
He said finding a secure venue with space for all the court staff, lawyers, defendants and juries is proving difficult. Jury selection brings even bigger groups of people together.
Halifax 'proven to be the most challenging'
"Halifax Regional Municipality has proven to be the most challenging place in which to find a location for criminal jury trials," he said.
The Nova Scotia Supreme Court in Halifax usually holds three criminal jury trials at a time all year, he said. The trials are long and the venue must be reserved just for the court to use.
He said schools and meeting places plan to return to regular use, so can't be booked exclusively for court. He said they have found spaces that would work, but didn't elaborate.
He said the court intends to start assigning jury trial dates on Sept. 23 so it can get the wheels of justice moving again. People who are in custody, on retrial, and close to the Jordan threshold will get priority, he said.
Family court catching up on backlog
Meanwhile, the family court had also been reduced to essential matters and has heard hundreds of such cases by phone and occasionally in person.
Spokesperson Jennifer Stairs said they moved to a "safe service" model on June 15 and are now hearing non-urgent matters.
Stairs said at least 941 family cases were adjourned at the start of the pandemic, but more than 70 per cent of them have now been held.
And on Sept. 1, Halifax's night court will resume in-person trials in cases where only one police witness is involved. Night court mostly handles parking and driving tickets or charges, liquor offences and bylaw infractions.
Some night court matters will continue to be adjourned or handled by phone.
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