VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Veteran Vancouver defence lawyer Richard Fowler says everyone working in B.C.’s justice system has been adjusting to the “new abnormal” since the coronavirus pandemic shut down most in-person court proceedings last month.
Courts at the federal and provincial level put a halt to non-urgent in-court proceedings last month to abide by physical distancing guidelines meant to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Some bail hearings and other urgent matters continue to be heard.
‘Everybody is working hard’ during ‘extraordinarily stressful’ time
B.C.’s chief justice, Robert Bauman, acknowledged in an April 7 open letter “how extraordinarily stressful the COVID-19 pandemic has been for all members of the public and for the legal profession.”
Bauman said he has made it easier from some parties to have their matter heard via teleconference or in writing.
Fowler said he has successfully participated in meetings and hearings via phone and video conferencing and he hopes the mediums continue to be used after the pandemic to improve access to justice.
Last week I received oral reasons for judgment via teleconference on Monday and conducted a discovery on Thursday using web confencing technology.
— Kenneth Armstrong, CBABC President (@UALawGrad) April 15, 2020
“Everybody is working hard to adjust and try to find creative of ways of continuing to work so that the justice system is available to British Columbians,” he said.
But the courtroom closures have put a complete stop to criminal trials in B.C. Supreme and provincial courts, leaving many accused criminals waiting in limbo, including some in custody and others on bail living under strict conditions.
Courts face ‘scheduling nightmare’ when doors re-open
The courts will face a “scheduling nightmare” when they re-open, Fowler predicted.
He expects to see a compounding effect as existing and new cases come up for scheduling at the same time in a system with limited availability of lawyers, judges, courtrooms and witnesses.
“It really is not like there will just be a pause and we start up again and the calendar moves forward three months,” Fowler said, referencing a hypothetical three-month shutdown. “It’s not going to work like that.”
Fowler said he is concerned the delays will infringe on the right of suspects to have a timely trial.
He anticipates Crown prosecutors will try to clear older cases as fast as possible, including by offering more lenient plea deals than they would otherwise.
“I suspect that people in the Crown’s office are going to have to make some difficult decisions about which cases can be resolved and which cases need to go to trial,” he said. “These are judgment calls everyone is going to have to make in light of what we’re dealing with.”
Locking up suspects a ‘last resort,’ prosecutors told
B.C Prosecution Service spokesperson Dan McLaughlin said “the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly had an impact on how the BCPS manages its caseload but we continue to exercise our prosecutorial discretion on a case by case basis in accordance with our policies and the various principles set out in the criminal code.”
As bail hearings continue, prosecutors have been encouraged to view incarceration as a “last resort for all non-violent offenders, even those who have previously received custodial sentences,” he said in an email.
Several prisons across Canada have seen COVID-19 outbreaks, including at Mission Institution where at least 41 inmates and six staff have reportedly tested positive as of Wednesday.
Police continue to arrest suspected criminals
The court shutdown has had little effect on the day-to-day work of the Vancouver Police Department, according to spokesperson Sgt. Aaron Roed.
He said the criteria for when police arrest people hasn’t changed, but some people are being released sooner than they would otherwise.
Roed said a “small handful” of those who have been released were arrested a second time for allegedly committing the same crime soon after.
— Kelvin Gawley in These Uncertain Times (@byGawley) April 15, 2020
While VPD statistics show commercial break-ins have more than doubled over the last four weeks compared to the same period last year, crime has dropped nearly six per cent overall – including a 34 per cent drop in thefts of items other than cars and bikes and a drop of more than 11 per cent in thefts of and from vehicles.
“People are at home, so the opportunity is not there,” Roed said.
Surrey RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Eleanor Sturko said Mounties are taking precautions to protect themselves from the virus, but the court closures have not changed how they operate.
“We’re continuing to arrest people in line with what the criminal code dictates. Our legal responsibilities have not changed,” she said.