B.C. trial lawyers warn COVID-19 closures creating crisis in court system
B.C.'s attorney general says urgent action needed to avoid growing 'iceberg' of backlogged court cases
Updated Friday, April 17, 2020: The B.C. Supreme court announced it will start "telephone conference hearings" on Monday, April 20. Only "one issue" cases will be heard by phone, and only if they last less than one hour. The process will only be available to those who were scheduled for a court hearing during the current suspension period that started March 19 and ends May 1.
Trial lawyers in B.C. are calling on the province to "move with urgency" or face a crisis in the form of court backlogs that could last for many years.
The lawyers want courtrooms reopened as soon as possible, with appropriate physical distancing.
"If we can implement safety and harm reduction measures at liquor stores and grocery stores, surely we can do the same thing in our court system," says John Rice, president of the Trial Lawyers Association of B.C.
B.C.'s attorney general agrees urgent action is needed — but as yet, there is no clear timeline.
Courts suspended 'regular operations'
On March 18, the B.C Supreme Court announced it was "suspending regular operations" during the coronavirus outbreak.
An update issued April 16 revealed all civil and family hearings are adjourned until at least May 29 and jury selections are cancelled until after July 3.
Hundreds of criminal cases have also been postponed.
Only the most urgent cases are being heard. A check mid-week showed just nine hearings were scheduled at the Vancouver Law Courts— a fraction of its pre-COVID daily workload.
B.C's lower provincial courts say they're not closed and have centralized operations at six hub courts— Vancouver criminal, Vancouver Robson Square, Surrey, Victoria, Kelowna and Prince George — but those hubs are also only hearing urgent matters, such as bail hearings and child protection cases.
Court wait 'horrible'
Micah Villarroel is among those British Columbians left waiting for their day in court.
She was hurt in a Surrey car crash four and a half years ago.
Her injury lawsuit against the Insurance Corporation of B.C. was scheduled to be heard April 20. Now, she has no idea when her claim for medical expenses will be heard.
"The waiting for this trial date was already so long," says Villarroel, 28. "I can't imagine how much more horrible and long it'll be once this whole pandemic resolves."
John Rice says the delays are unacceptable. And he wants the provincial government to tackle the problem with a fast-track attitude lifted from tech entrepreneurs.
"It's time to 'move fast and break things'," says Rice. "It's not going to be perfect, but it's hard to envision it being worse than the courts being closed."
Backlog iceberg is growing every day: Eby
B.C. Attorney General David Eby, who has clashed with the province's trial lawyers in the past over no fault insurance, echoes their concerns over the COVID court closures.
"Well, you really know these are unprecedented times, because I'm agreeing with the trial lawyers on an issue," says Eby. "We really do need to do more, faster."
Eby notes he's governed by the advice of public health officials during the COVID-19 outbreak. But he says he is also deeply worried about the snowballing backlog of cases — something he likens to a massive iceberg.
"That iceberg is growing every day and we don't want to run into it," said the attorney general, "So, we're trying to minimize the growth."
Technology hasn't penetrated legal profession
Eby says the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted serious shortcomings in the judicial system that has failed to embrace technology — even simple teleconferencing and electronic filing of documents.
"I really think that this is forcing an issue that's been put off for a long time which is the amount of time it takes to get matters to court," said Eby. "The process that's involved and the fact that technology really hasn't penetrated the legal profession in the same way that it has so many other sectors."
So, the attorney general says he's gathered a group of experts together to give the province advice on how to tackle the problem.
"Right now as we speak, courts are testing out different technologies to be able to get back to business as usual through social distancing," said Eby.
For the Trial Lawyers of B.C., speed is key — especially if there's a second wave of COVID-19 in the months to come.
"If we do this right, if we make these reforms now and with urgency, we can emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic with a more just British Columbia society," says Rice.
"This is an historic opportunity to make our justice system fairer, faster and cheaper and also more accessible."
That's a sentiment shared by David Eby.
"It's a silver lining in a really tragic situation, because we know that the backlog is building," he said. "We're doing everything possible to minimize that ... and get people access to justice."
In the meantime, Micah Villarroel remains one of those impatiently waiting.
"These are people's lives that are in the standstill," she said. "[We're] banking on this opportunity to finally get the justice that we deserve."
CBC Vancouver's Impact Team investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community and strives to hold individuals, institutions and organizations to account. If you have a story for us, email email@example.com.
With files from Ethan Sawyer
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