COVID-19 forces changes as B.C. provincial courts reopen for trials
Mandatory pre-trial conferences will be implemented to reduce number of cases going to trial
Provincial court trials in British Columbia will resume July 6 with numerous changes not only for health and safety reasons amid COVID-19, but to accelerate the court process.
The provincial court hasn't closed completely during the pandemic; urgent and essential matters were heard immediately and then proceedings were expanded for hundreds of hearings over the phone or via video conference.
The provincial court has now set out a series of standards to cautiously reopen while taking health and safety protocols to minimize transmission of the virus at provincial courthouses around the province.
A message from Chief Judge Melissa Gillespie says the next step is to reduce in-person appearances and it will roll out technology for bail hearings that would allow an accused to attend a bail hearing at local police stations or correctional centres.
The court says in a statement that since the Supreme Court of Canada set time limits on criminal trials, only four per cent of those files actually made it to trial, while the remainder clog up the system.
Inefficiencies 'amplified by pandemic'
The statement says the inefficiencies were amplified by the pandemic and it is now implementing mandatory pre-trial conferences to reduce the number of cases going to trial and to ensure there's an accurate estimate on the length of time the case will take to get to trial.
"The court is committed to ensuring the fair, efficient and timely resolution of criminal files and to upholding the accused's right to be tried within a reasonable time,'' the statement says.
"Using pre-trial conferences to help reduce day-of-trial collapse rates and trial continuations is an important part of that commitment.''
It says more than three quarters of all criminal files set for trial in provincial court collapsed on the planned trial date because of guilty pleas, stays of proceedings, bench warrants or adjournments.
"These statistics reveal that too many criminal files are set for trial and do not proceed, causing significant scheduling difficulties and inefficient use of court time,'' the statement says.
Gillespie says the court will continue to find new ways to enhance access to justice so people can resolve their legal issues or have their day in court — whether in a virtual hearing room on in-person.
"People in B.C. are entitled to expect that their courts are open, there is timely access to justice, and the rule of law is upheld. They are also entitled to know that these will be safe courts.''