'Boggles my mind': Law firm sounds alarm as COVID-19 grinds courts to a halt

A criminal law firm in Edmonton says COVID-19 restrictions in Alberta's courthouses have led to an untenable situation.

Courtrooms well-suited for physical distancing, lawyers tell Premier Jason Kenney

File photo shows an empty jury box in a courtroom at the Edmonton Law Courts building. An Edmonton criminal law firm says COVID-19 restrictions in Alberta's courthouses have led to an untenable situation. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

A criminal law firm in Edmonton says COVID-19 restrictions in Alberta's courthouses have led to an untenable situation.

Liberty Law sounds the alarm over excessive justice delays in a letter to Alberta Premier Jason Kenney and provincial health and justice ministers.

"Our justice system was already overburdened, backlogged and facing significant delays," the lawyers wrote in the missive dated May 13 and made public Tuesday.

"The backlog is now more extreme, with only a few cases trickling through the reduced services barriers."

The firm says even though courts have been deemed essential services, they are not operating that way and only a small number of cases are trickling through.

The lawyers say the pandemic has created an extreme backlog in a court system that was already overburdened.

Liberty Law lawyers who signed the May 13, 2020 letter, from left: Eamon O'Keefe, Ed O'Neill, Bob Aloneissi, Brian Hurley and Chris Millsap. (Aloneissi O'Neill/Liberty Law )

They note courtrooms are suited to physical distancing and they are calling for them to be opened immediately.

Court of Queen's Bench announced last week that hearings will be restricted to urgent matters until at least June 26 and criminal jury trials and jury selections are to be adjourned until September.

Liberty Law partner Brian Hurley says a few court functions have been made possible with the help of technology, but the situation is unacceptable.

"It boggles my mind that I can go to the garden centre. I can go to a menswear store. I can play golf. I can go to the Apple Store," he said.

"But I can't get to court for about 90 per cent of my matters."

A spokesperson for Justice Minister Doug Schweitzer's office said the courts operate independently from government and make their own operational and procedural decisions.

Jonah Mozeson provided a link to a May 6 letter from Alberta Chief Justice Catherine Fraser, Court of Queen's Bench Justice Mary Moreau and Provincial Court Chief Justice Terrence Matchett outlining the courts' approach to the crisis.

The letter, addressed to the presidents of the Canadian Bar Association's Alberta branch and Law Society of Alberta, says the courts are doing what's necessary to meet public expectations.

"As you and your colleagues navigate an increasingly dynamic and rapidly-changing legal environment, we commend you for your continued efforts to provide Albertans with strong legal representation," the chief justices wrote.

"We also thank you for your patience and support as we implement, and experiment with technology that enables our justice system to function during this unprecedented time."

Hurley said the Alberta Court of Appeal is able to function relatively well, but that lower courts in the province are operating at between 10 to 15 per cent of their usual capacity.

He said cases could be dismissed and potential defences lost.

"It is going to create a real mess when we reopen. It is going to cause gigantic delays to every aspect of the court system."

The chief justices said the courts and ministry have had to find new ways of delivering justice, including with technological innovations like videoconferencing.

"There is no turning back now," they wrote.

"Coming out of this pandemic, it is our hope that the courts, ministry, the bar and other justice stakeholders work together to take the lessons learned in doing so and apply them to build a stronger justice system for all Albertans."

Once the courts reopen more fully, Hurley predicts there will be a deluge of people in docket court for pre-trial matters that had been delayed, undermining any previous efforts to restrict crowding in courtrooms.

"A cornerstone of any democratic nation is a functioning, independent court system. Our court system at the moment is not functioning," Hurley said.

"That is a problem for democracy. That is a problem for society."