London courthouse to reopen today after two week COVID-19 closure

The London courthouse will reopen for urgent family and criminal law matters after being closed for two weeks when a lawyer tested positive for COVID-19.

The courthouse was closed March 17 after a lawyer, who had been at work, tested positive for the virus

The London courthouse will reopen on Monday after a two-week shutdown. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

The London courthouse will reopen for urgent family and criminal law matters after being closed for two weeks when a lawyer tested positive for COVID-19. 

But the justice system in London will look very different than it did before the courthouse was shut down on March 17 for deep cleaning. Since then, urgent London cases were heard in the St. Thomas courthouse. 

Starting today, hearings for urgent criminal cases and family matters will be done virtually, most by teleconference because the courthouse doesn't have the bandwidth to handle a large number of video conferences. 

If an in-court appearance must happen, arrangements will be made to bring in people but have them keep appropriate physical distance. There will be screening and only certain parts of the courthouse will be accessible.

Usually, the courthouse is a hub of activity, with lawyers, staffers, accused people and family members in close proximity with each other. 

"It's more difficult to run a case by audio or by video and we miss the in-person contact with our clients," said London lawyer Chris Dobson, one of seven lawyers — out of about 70 practising criminal law in London — who volunteered to handle their colleagues' cases in St. Thomas, to reduce the number of people going into that courthouse. 

"You can imagine that people who are mentally ill or addicted, they really need to see their lawyer in person. It's not the same and remote appearances make for a pretty bad experience, in my opinion."

A sign outside the London courthouse limits who can go in. The building is opening March 30 after a two-week closure. (Amanda Margison/CBC News)

Detained without trial

Less urgent court appearances will be limited to lawyers and essential court staff, who will also have to maintain a safe physical distance, according to a letter sent to the legal community by the Ministry of the Attorney General. 

Court documents for urgent matters can now be filed by email, something that isn't always done in a justice system still heavily reliant on paper filings. 

People who are accused of crimes but are not in custody have had their cases adjourned for 10 weeks. 

But many awaiting bail hearings and trial are in the overcrowded Elgin Middlesex Detention Centre, a situation that worries many lawyers. 

"We now have people detained without trials," Dobson said. "We don't know when trial date setting will start for those individuals and if they haven't made bail, they're just in limbo and it's a very difficult situation and stressful for them."

About 60 people were released from the provincial jail last week, part of an effort by Crown prosecutors and defence lawyers to figure out which inmates can be released without much risk. 

"It's still extremely crowded there," Dobson said. "They're not just going to release people as a result of the virus. There's assessment of risks that's going on." 

Some inmates at EMDC don't have lawyers, which the seven London volunteers are trying to fix.