In-person trial to proceed despite COVID-19 precautions at Saskatoon's Court of Queen's Bench

An in-person proceeding is starting Monday at Saskatoon’s Court of Queen’s Bench despite sweeping changes to the system since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Defence lawyer hopes trial is exception and not the rule

Signs on the doors at Court of Queen's Bench in Saskatoon lay out the new rules. (Dan Zakreski/CBC)

Two men are standing trial today at Court of Queen's Bench in Saskatoon on break-and-enter charges that date back to 2017.

Fraser Littlewolf and Joshua Lecky are alleged to have broken into a residence between Dec. 25 and 28, 2017.

Their charges include breaking and enter, possessing property over $5,000, wearing a mask, possessing a crossbow and stolen vehicle, and numerous breaches.

The trial is starting despite sweeping changes to the system since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

"In all cases it is left up to individual judges to decide whether, given all the circumstances, an in-person hearing is required," court communications officer Dawn Blaus said in an email. 

"In those rare cases where an in-person hearing is deemed necessary, the judge will dictate what that process will look like, which undoubtedly would include following the advice and recommendations of public health officials to ensure everyone taking part is safe."

A Saskatoon defence lawyer is surprised the trial is going ahead.

"I do expect that it will be the exception rather than the rule, for trials to be moving forward in this COVID-19 pandemic situation," said Lisa Watson, co-president of the Saskatoon Criminal Defence Lawyers Association.

Watson says lawyers are well aware of the call for self-isolation and physical distancing. In this environment, she's not certain gathering people for a trial sends the right message to the general public.

"The overall message I would hope is that the trials moving forward are the exception and not the rule and hopefully those in the courtroom are going to be following all of the directives from public health."

Operations have slowed considerably at both provincial court and the Court of Queen's Bench since Chief Justice Martel Popescul issued a directive concerning COVID-19 on March 19.

The directive says only urgent and emergency matters will be heard in person, such as matters where there may be "serious consequences" to people or property if the hearing is not conducted with haste.

Cases that could be adjourned to a later date were adjourned until late May or June, while those accused are asked to send lawyers to court or arrange for telephone or video appearances, and personal appearances at court are actively discouraged.

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.

The five-day criminal trial starts today at 10 a.m. CST.