Nova Scotia

Halifax seeks venues for jury trials as cases delayed by COVID-19 mount

Nova Scotians will learn this week if the justice system has found a place to hold jury trials in Halifax, as a backlog of cases delayed by COVID-19 grows. The province has not held a jury trial since March.

Halifax has yet to find a venue for jury trials, but other parts of the province are moving ahead

The Bridgewater courthouse has made arrangements to safely hold jury trials under COVID-19 protocols. (Robert Short/CBC)

Nova Scotians will learn this week if the justice system has found a place to hold jury trials in Halifax, as a backlog of cases delayed by COVID-19 grows.

Nova Scotia has not held a jury trial since the pandemic started in March. Bridgewater has found a facility to hold such trials, which must happen in person under the Criminal Code, but Halifax has not. About 19 jury trial cases have been delayed so far. 

"Basically from end of March, when the state of emergency was announced, up until probably the end of June, courts were really just essential services only," said Trevor McGuigan, a criminal defence lawyer in Halifax.

"Most appearances were entirely by phone. No trials were taking place."

Murder trial adjourned 

Some cases started to move ahead in July, with many court proceedings happening via a combination of phone, video and in-person appearances. Judge-only trials have been taking place.

One of McGuigan's clients faces a homicide charge and was scheduled to face trial in September, but that was adjourned. He'll find out Thursday if he will get a new date in Halifax. 

Trevor McGuigan said people accused of serious crimes want their day in court. COVID-19 has delayed the court schedule by months. (CBC)

Those delays have raised questions about the Jordan rule, which says Supreme Court cases must be heard within 30 months, leaving out any defence-caused delays. Longer than that and the accused's right to a timely trial has been violated — unless there are exceptional circumstances.

Many people agree that a global pandemic counts as exceptional circumstances. "However, that can't justify delay forever," McGuigan said. 

"Certainly people that are awaiting trial — especially those that are in custody awaiting their jury trial — they're presumed innocent, they're on remand, and they cannot have their trial right now. It's having a big impact on those people."

McGuigan expects to see some defence lawyers raise those concerns as delays mount. He's hopeful Halifax figures out a way to hold jury trials soon. 

Awaiting their day in court

Sheena O'Rielly, an associate with Blois, Nickerson and Bryson, agreed that the Jordan rule could soon become an issue. 

"The fact that COVID-19 is exceptional doesn't lessen the effect of delay on people awaiting resolution or conclusion of their matter, particularly those who are in pre-trial custody," she told CBC News via email. 

"I'm aware of courts in other parts of our province that will be holding jury trials in vacant gymnasiums. If similar solutions are not being considered or implemented in Halifax, I would certainly want to put that on record."

Halifax seeking a venue

In Bridgewater, a man will be tried for sexual exploitation and sexual assault next month. Jury selection will happen at the HB Studios Sports Centre and the trial will be held at the Bridgewater courthouse.  

"Inside the courtroom, court staff will rearrange the seating in the jury box to accommodate physical distancing for the jurors. They are also planning to use an adjacent courtroom as a jury deliberation room, again to maintain physical distancing," said Jennifer Stairs, spokesperson for the Nova Scotia Judiciary. 

Stairs said the judiciary is working with the provincial Department of Justice to find offsite venues for Halifax jury trials.  

"Any sites would need to comply with physical distancing requirements, as well as the unique security and procedural needs of the courts. We wouldn't speak specifically about the sites that are being considered," she said. 

Associate Chief Justice Duncan will give an update on the search for a Halifax venue on Thursday.