COVID-19 outbreak leads to major changes in Alberta courthouses 

Starting Tuesday and for the next 10 weeks, judges in provincial courts will only hear cases if an accused is in custody or if it’s an urgent criminal, family or child-protection matter.

Sittings suspended unless urgent or accused in custody 

There will be fewer cases heard in Edmonton courtrooms over the next 10 weeks. (Cort Sloan/CBC )

In an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19, drastic changes are being made to the operations of Alberta provincial courts and the Court of Queen's Bench.

Beginning Tuesday and for the next 10 weeks, judges in provincial courts will only hear cases if an accused is in custody or if it's an urgent criminal, family or child-protection matter.

Members of the public will no longer be allowed into a provincial courtroom unless they're directly related to the case as an accused, victim or witness. 

Those accused who are not in custody but were supposed to appear in court between March 17 and May 22 will not have to attend the courtroom.

Bail, sentencing hearings will continue

For those in custody, bail hearings, preliminary inquiries, trials and sentencing hearings will still be heard.

Non-urgent family matters will also be postponed for 10 weeks from the scheduled court date, and most civil matters set to be heard before May 22 will be adjourned indefinitely. 

Lawyers and the media will still be allowed to attend court as long as they do not show symptoms. 

On Monday, the Court of Queen's Bench began limiting hearings to emergency or urgent cases only. 

Except for those accused in custody, most criminal trials scheduled between now and March 27 have been put on hold. 

Queen's Bench justices will still deal with detention and bail review orders and arrest warrants. 

Family matters will go ahead if there's a risk of violence or immediate harm, and a limited number of civil cases will be heard. A notice issued by the Court of Queen's Bench said orders related to the pandemic, including quarantine orders, will proceed. 

Edmonton criminal defence lawyer Derek Anderson said the changes make sense. 

"I'm satisfied to a degree with the measures they've taken," Anderson told CBC News. "It would have been nice if they were sooner rather than later."

He said he noticed a significant change in the Edmonton courthouse on Monday morning. 

"It's quiet," Anderson said. "Quieter than normal. There is a sense of anxiety sort of hovering over the place."

On Monday evening, The Court of Appeal announced that starting Tuesday only counsel, litigants and members of the media will be allowed to attend proceedings. The court also announced that effective March 23 matters involving a single duty judge will take place over telephone conference and attendance in chambers will not be permitted without prior written authorization. 

Effective March 30, all appeals and applications involving a three judge panel will be heard electronically.

Anyone seeking an in-person oral hearing will need to contact a case management officer to explain why the appeal of application requires an in-person argument.  The new guidelines are available on the Alberta courts website. 

Jail visits impacted 

On Monday, Alberta Justice and Solicitor General announced immediate new restrictions on visitors to provincial jails, remand centres and youth correctional facilities. 

Visits by family members, volunteers and lawyers have been suspended. An exception may be made if a defence lawyer needs an in-person meeting and health and safety is not compromised.

There have been no confirmed coronavirus cases in provincial correctional, remand or young offender centres.

Anderson called the changes a "measured" approach but said he's worried about what could happen if there is an outbreak in a correctional facility. 

"They're not designed for quarantine," he said. "They're not designed to keep people isolated for health. These are not healthy populations at the best of times. They are vulnerable." 

Anderson called on police and the Crown to keep people out of custody where it's appropriate or unless it's absolutely necessary to incarcerate given the nature of the charges or an accused's previous criminal record.

A spokesperson for Alberta Justice and Solicitor General said if daily operations of provincial correctional facilities is impact, the department will make necessary decisions regarding the release of older and non-violent offenders as appropriate.

"Speculation on what decision would be made is inappropriate as it would be based on the specific circumstances at the time," the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

On Saturday, the Correctional Service of Canada suspended all inmate visits at federal prisons across the country.