How COVID-19 is changing Sask. courts and jails

Operations at the province's busiest levels of court are grinding to a halt as the judiciary wrestles with COVID-19.

Directives outline changes to provincial and Queen's Bench court operations

The pandemic continues to disrupt court operations. (Dan Zakreski/CBC)

Operations at the busiest levels of court in Saskatchewan — provincial court and Court of Queen's Bench — are grinding to a halt as the judiciary wrestles with COVID-19.

What will happen with inmates in the province's jails and prisons is not yet clear.

On Thursday, Chief Justice Martel Popescul shut down regular operations at Court of Queen's Bench. This court handles criminal, family law and civil cases.

"The primary concern is to continue to protect the health and safety of those who use the Court, together with those involved with the justice system," he wrote in a directive published on the Saskatchewan Law Courts website.

The principle at play in both levels of court is to balance public access with the need to keep people apart.

To this end, cases that can be adjourned to a later date are now adjourned until late May or June, accused are asked to send lawyers to court or arrange for telephone or video appearances, and personal appearances at court are actively discouraged.

"Only urgent and emergency matters will be heard by the Court, and most of those will be heard by phone or video conference," Popescul wrote.

Any trials set for between March 16 and May 31 are now postponed.

On Friday, the Court of Appeal announced that all its matters will be heard by phone or teleconference starting on Monday.

At provincial court, new arrests appear by video when possible. Individuals are either released, with their dates pushed back to June, or remanded in custody. Many of these decisions are made in near-empty courtrooms, with lawyers and prisoners communicating electronically.

What will happen with the jails and prisons remains a point of debate.

The Congress of Aboriginal Peoples and the union representing legal aid workers are both calling on the government to release non-violent inmates from provincial correctional centres, Saskatchewan Penitentiary and the Regional Psychiatric Centre.

"Except where detained on the basis of a risk to reoffend involving a substantive offence which poses a threat to public safety, governments should consider directing the release of these individuals," said Meara Conway, president of CUPE 1949, which represents legal aid workers.

"Under no circumstance should individuals be detained for administration of justice offences, such as failures to appear in court or breaches of conditions."

The province has said it has no plans for a release of prisoners.


Dan Zakreski is a reporter for CBC Saskatoon.