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Legal Precedent? Not yet: Why lawsuits over COVID-19 fears may not be an option

Last Updated Mar 20, 2020 at 8:53 pm PDT

FILE -Despite repeated calls for people to social distance amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it looks like many just aren't getting the message. (CityNews Vancouver)

Government orders banning gathering can and will be enforced but changing individual behaviour is not straightforward

When people defy direction to keep their distance or cancel events, the government has stepped in and compelled them to

More laws, orders and rules are likely if people continue to defy directives: criminal defence lawyer

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — Businesses who flout orders to close to customers in the name of social distancing can be fined or shut down, but can people who gather in large groups similarly be held accountable?

Provincial health officials said Friday that people, especially young people, are not heeding the call for less in-person contact amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We need to keep our germs to ourselves, we need to have small groups, we need to go online,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry who also encouraged using social media to “call out” people congregating in groups.

Criminal defense lawyer Michael Sharpay says government orders, like the one in Vancouver banning dining-in, can and will be enforced but changing individual behaviour isn’t so straightforward.

“If they were to violate city-passed rules, then by-law enforcement officers could charge them,” Shapray explains.

“We don’t have anything that is a law right now where the police could stop someone on the street and say: ‘Well, you’re not standing six feet away from somebody that’s what we’ve told you to do therefore you’re in breach of a law.'”

He says a “creative civil litigation or personal injury lawyer” may be able to find a way to sue someone but such a lawsuit would be unprecedented.

“It would be a pretty long path to tread to try and sue someone because they weren’t following directives on social distancing that there are right now,” he says.

Shapray says when people defy direction to keep their distance and cancel events, the government has stepped in and compelled them to act with “common sense”

“As people disregard the requirements we are starting to see governments at different levels–city, provincial, and federal–put more actual rules into place, and those are rules that can be enforced. It becomes not a common-sense issue when people don’t comply and aren’t exercising common sense.”

While he thinks a surge in civil lawsuits is unlikely and would challenge an already backlogged court system, more government action is likely.

“The government would hope people will follow their directives and advice, but that doesn’t always happen, we see that all the time in society. And when people don’t the government is supposed to pass laws and enforce laws,” he says. in a pandemic situation, I think we’re going to see more and more enforceable laws passed as people disregard the directives.”

With files from Marcella Bernardo