With new technology and protective shields, Alberta courtrooms are slowly reopening
'It's been a bit of a rollercoaster ride' says chief justice
Alberta's courtrooms, largely vacant since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, are slowly opening their doors to deal with a backlog of delayed cases.
Sweeping restrictions introduced more than 10 weeks ago will be lifted in the coming months. But courtrooms will look markedly different, and some of the technological changes adopted during the health crisis will remain a permanent feature of Alberta's justice system.
"It's been a bit of a roller-coaster ride," Chief Justice Mary Moreau of the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench said in an interview Friday.
"I'd like to think that the roller coaster is now moving on the rail up."
On March 17, as COVID-19 cases in Alberta began to escalate, concerns over the spread of the virus forced major changes in the court system. Some criminal trials were put on hold and only a limited number of civil cases were being heard.
Jury benches sat vacant. Arguments were heard via teleconference. Members of the public not weren't allowed in courtrooms if they weren't directly related to the case. Accused individuals not being held in custody were told they no longer had to attend. Some civil matters were postponed indefinitely.
But courts are slowly opening up again. In a May 27 letter to members of the bar, the chief judges of Alberta's three levels of court explain that some trial courtrooms will begin operating again in June, with restrictions.
There are limits to what the trial courts can do remotely, the letter says, but attempts are being made to "more aggressively" schedule in-person trials.
Court in session, with protective shields
A limited number of courtrooms, far fewer than would operate in a normal court term, are being equipped with Plexiglas shields.
On June 1, Court of Queen's Bench will start to schedule in-person trials each week in four courtrooms equipped with shields— one each in Edmonton, Calgary, Red Deer and Lethbridge.
Priority will be given to trials adjourned due to COVID-19, the letter states. Cases where the accused remains in custody or the case is under threat of being thrown due to an unreasonable delay in proceedings will also be expedited.
Court of Queen's Bench expects to begin rescheduling jury trials sometime in the fall, the letter says.
However, the trials can only be heard if current restrictions on indoor gatherings are relaxed and arrangements can be made for the safe sequestration of jury members during deliberations.
"Given the ongoing state of emergency in Alberta, as with other public institutions offering essential services, the courts require government's support to ensure courthouses are safe," reads the letter signed by Moreau, Chief Justice of Alberta Catherine Fraser and Terrence Matchett, Chief Judge of the Provincial Court of Alberta.
There have been some unusual situations in the past but none like this that affects an entire court system."-Queen's Bench Chief Justice Mary Moreau
In the meantime, Queen's Bench is working to identify trials that can proceed remotely through video conferencing. Lawyers have been asked to identify urgent criminal trials involving few witnesses that could proceed in-person under current restrictions that limit indoor gatherings to 15 people.
The provincial court has already held several trials remotely, the letter notes.
Queen's Bench will not take a summer recess but will instead conduct as many hearings as possible to reduce the current backlog.
Problems in the past, but never like this
Emergencies such as the 2013 flooding in southern Alberta have derailed court operations in the past, but nothing compares to the changes wrought by the pandemic, Moreau told CBC Radio's Edmonton AM on Friday.
"During the Calgary flood, there was even an offer by the chief justice at the time to house animals from the Calgary Zoo that were in danger of going astray in the cells below the courthouse.
"There have been some unusual situations in the past but none like this that affects an entire court system."
Since the restrictions began, more than 1,800 requests for urgent legal matters have been "triaged," Moreau said.
"We have some challenges as a court of record," she said. "Many of these processes have to be recorded and that's why we do need our courtrooms. We need the computer recording machine and we need a clerk. Those are challenges that have slowed us down."
One branch of the justice system has been spared much of the upheaval. Due to some recent digital advancements, the Court of Appeal was better equipped to deal with the restrictions and has been operating at full hearing capacity.
Before the pandemic, the appeal court had implemented an electronic case management system, allowing it to quickly transition to remote hearings.
It's a system the courts want to see implemented on every level of the justice system.
Unprecedented challenge, speedy change
On March 25, the provincial government announced it would spend $27 million to improve technological services within the court system. An e-filing program, which includes a digital case management system, is now considered a top priority for that grant money, Moreau said.
We really had no technological capacity whatsoever.-Queen's Bench Chief Justice Mary Moreau
The courts have had to adapt quickly in recent weeks. Changes have made some court functions more nimble, easing backlogs.
Between March 16 and March 22, a total of 2,775 applications for rulings not requiring a court appearance — including divorce filings and estate matters — were processed, scanned and sent electronically to judges to review at home.
Before the pandemic, the wait time for a non-court divorce in Calgary was 12 weeks. It's now 2½ weeks. The wait time for probate matters in Edmonton has been cut from nine weeks to four.
Dragging the courts into the digital age may be one of the few bright spots in the pandemic, Moreau said.
"We really had no technological capacity whatsoever and we had been certainly seeking that support from government.
"I'm really pleased to say that in the past 10 weeks there's been a very speedy support provided."
With files from Nola Keeler