Ottawa

Lawyers sound alarm bells as in-person refugee hearings resume

Immigration lawyers in Ottawa are worried about the way the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada is resuming in-person hearings Monday, after being closed for months due to COVID-19. 

Immigration and Refugee Board says it's working to implement virtual technology

Arghavan Gerami, an immigration lawyer in Ottawa, has been sending letters to Ottawa Public Health and the Public Health Agency of Canada about her concerns with in-person hearings. (Natalia Goodwin/CBC )

Immigration lawyers in Ottawa are worried about plans to resume in-person hearings at the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) this week, after being closed for months due to COVID-19. 

The board requires masks be worn, unless someone is testifying or addressing the board in the hearing room. While lawyers and refugee claimants will be in the same room, the board member hearing the case will be in a separate room and the hearing conducted by video conference.

"It comes across as we're protecting the board member and we're protecting maybe the interpreter, and [lawyers and claimants] get to go in the hearing room. And, you know, you have to take off your masks," said Arghavan Gerami, an immigration lawyer and owner of Gerami Law Professional Corporation in Ottawa.

I think it is an added stress and concern because you're already going to be stressed out appearing in front of a body that has immense power over the rest of your life.- Jamie Liew, associate professor of law, University of Ottawa

"So that I think doesn't feel right. There's something wrong with that."

Masks must be removed because they can hinder the recording of the hearing and the "board member's ability to properly assess testimony and submissions," the board wrote in a statement to CBC News,

The IRB said it is following all Public Health Agency of Canada guidelines, including asking people to wear masks in public areas.

Hearing rooms have been reconfigured to provide a two-metre distance between people and plexiglass has also been installed, the board said.

'Added stress'

Gerami has written letters to the Public Health Agency of Canada, Ottawa Public Health and the IRB outlining her concerns.

"If we're coming for a virtual hearing anyway, why can't we have that option of doing the virtual hearings from home, from our offices," she said.

Jamie Liew, an associate professor of law at the University of Ottawa, said she's been hearing from clients and other lawyers who are also worried about in-person hearings.

"For clients, I think it is an added stress and concern because you're already going to be stressed out appearing in front of a body that has immense power over the rest of your life," she said.

"To ask people to come in under these stressful circumstances just makes the system or the process ... in some ways less friendly."

Immigration lawyer Jamie Liew says asking people to risk their health adds more stress to an already stressful situation. (Submitted by Jamie Liew)

Liew also fears without proper precautions, it may be more difficult to convince witnesses to appear if they have health concerns. 

Virtual hearings

The IRB began a virtual hearing pilot project in July with 120 hearings scheduled by video, the board said.

It plans to evaluate feedback from those meetings this summer and, if considered successful, the board plans to increase the number of video hearings.

But the board said it would be unfair to force people to wait until the review is completed if in-person hearings are still possible.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Natalia is a multi-platform journalist in Ottawa. She has also worked for CBC in P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador.

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