Trials postponed as Alberta courts take precautions in face of pandemic third wave

A number of trials and appearances scheduled to begin this month in Alberta courts have been postponed following the enactment of tighter COVID-19 measures.

In-custody matters and remote hearings will still go ahead

An empty chair where a judge usually sits on the bench in front of a wood-paneled wall bearing the provincial crest.
Judges bench at the Edmonton Law Courts building. New restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 will disrupt Alberta's courts. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

A number of trials and appearances scheduled to get underway in Alberta courts this month have been postponed following the enactment of stricter COVID-19 precautions.

Both the provincial court and Court of Queen's Bench announced changes last week that will limit in-person matters to decrease the number of people inside courthouses across Alberta.

Measures announced by both courts will be in effect from Monday through May 28 and delay many in-person civil and criminal trials and hearings.

Exceptions include: 

  • trials that were ongoing before Monday;
  • criminal trials if an accused is in custody; 
  • scheduled emergency protection and restraining order hearings with live evidence;
  • matters that are determined on a case-by-case basis to be unusual or urgent.

The changes affect some high-profile cases scheduled to begin this week, including the postponement of a fatality inquiry into the death of Serenity, a four-year-old Cree girl who died while in kinship care in 2014, and a trial for a man accused of driving under the influence of cannabis during a fatal September 2018 collision in Edmonton. 

Early in the pandemic, Alberta courts moved many matters to video conferencing. Anything that can be done virtually will still go ahead.

The Court of Appeal of Alberta has been conducting all its hearings by video or teleconference and will continue to do so, a spokesperson said Monday.

'The right thing to do'

Alberta lawyers Amanda Hart-Dowhun, Maia Tomljanovic and Jordan Stuffco all say the postponement of many in-person trials this month due to COVID-19 is unfortunate but understandable. (Janice Johnston/CBC News, Maia Tomljanovic, Jordan Stuffco)

The move makes sense given the risk to individuals including lawyers, court staff, subpoenaed witnesses and those who are facing charges, said Amanda Hart-Dowhun, a criminal defence lawyer in Edmonton.

"It's unfortunate, but it's probably the right thing to do," said Hart-Dowhun, who has had a few cases postponed.

Witnesses and those facing charges are in a particularly difficult situation, she said. "They're worried about catching a potentially deadly illness if they go, but they're going to be arrested if they don't."

Though the delays are worrisome, the heads of associations representing both civil and criminal trial lawyers in Alberta  appreciate the difficult position the courts are in. 

Even before the pandemic, civil trials expected to run longer than a week were being booked two-and-half years in advance, said Maia Tomljanovic, a Calgary personal injury lawyer and chair of the Alberta Civil Trial Lawyers Association.

She hasn't checked lately but suspects that booking a multi-week trial now would be even further out.

"I expect it would be certainly well over three years out. Now, with the trials that were scheduled for this month having to be adjourned, we're probably looking at more of a delay," she said. "It is certainly a concern for my clients and any civil litigants."

Still, she's been impressed by how courts have adapted to allow things like remote hearings over video and email filing, and is sympathetic to the financial challenges that limit how much courts can do or update to more efficient technology.

Jordan Stuffco, an Edmonton defence lawyer and president of the Criminal Trial Lawyers Association, said he's also been impressed by Alberta courts' adoption of new technologies to keep hearings going remotely. 

As with civil court, Alberta's criminal courts are facing a backlog. This shutdown will push cases into 2022, said Stuffco.

"We're dealing with it," he said. "Honestly what I see are the courts really bending over backwards and trying to assist as much as they can with getting matters to continue forward," he said.