Courts plan 2 mock trials as trial run of COVID-19 physical-distancing requirements
Limits on number of people per courtroom, staggered trial start times among changes being considered
The Department of Justice and Office of the Attorney General plan to hold two mock trials in Moncton next week as a trial run of how to resume normal operations at courthouses across the province while respecting COVID-19 physical-distancing requirements.
The court system has been dealing mostly only with emergency matters during the pandemic, but officials expect to return to full capacity June 1, "barring any unforeseen negative turn in the medical news," said John Logan, the deputy minister of justice and deputy attorney general.
But this will present some "severe challenges" and has officials thinking ahead, given the importance of the open-court principle.
"We have an infrastructure that was never designed for COVID, for social distancing," Logan said during a conference call with members of the media on Friday to discuss the matter.
The maximum number of people allowed per courtroom will have to be reduced and priority will be given to the parties, their lawyers, the judge, the court stenographer, sheriff's deputies, witnesses, interpreters, if required, and media.
"We're going to, I think frequently max out that number of people," Court of Queen's Bench Chief Justice Tracey DeWare said during the call.
"Because we have to be more careful on who's in the building and who's in the courtroom, I think the media's role takes on a heightened importance," she said.
"It'll be the journalists that will be that kind of 'public eye,' that will be the folks that are around and can report on what's going on."
The intent of the mock trials is to highlight any physical distancing problems that might arise during the proceedings and to identify solutions.
For example, witnesses are commonly sworn in by placing their hand on a Bible being held out by a sheriff's deputy, and exhibits often change hands numerous times — from lawyers, to the court stenographer, to the judge, to witnesses and jury members.
"Social distancing while conducting a trial is a new concept for everyone, and we want to be in a position to address as many concerns as possible prior to bringing participants back into the courthouse for in-person matters," DeWare said in an emailed statement.
"In addition to facilitating the flow of trials once they resume this will also, hopefully, reassure everyone — witnesses, parties, lawyers and judges that they can attend their court hearing safely."
The mock trials will be held on Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. in the Court of Queen's Bench family division and at 1:30 p.m. in the Court of Queen's Bench trial division.
Similar exercises are expected to occur at the provincial level at a later date, said Logan.
When in-trials resume, start times may be staggered throughout the day instead of the usual 9:30 a.m. or 1:30 p.m. in order to reduce the number of people in the courthouses at any given time, he said.
This might require extending courthouse hours.
"We haven't decided on that but we're certainly discussing it," Logan said.
"Again, our intent is to reduce the volume of folks in the buildings because … much like Sobeys and Superstore, you've got a one-way aisle and you know, one person per elevator, those sorts of nitty gritty realities are going to be with us for a few weeks or months."