Politics

Supreme Court chief justice says he's 'optimistic' about launch of virtual hearings

Chief Justice Richard Wagner says he's optimistic about today's launch of virtual hearings at the Supreme Court of Canada.

Wagner says he would like to see ongoing use of technology by court after pandemic ends

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with Supreme Court Chief Justice Richard Wagner as they wait for the Speech from the Throne to begin, last year. Wagner says that when the pandemic is over, he would like to see the ongoing use of technology by Canada's top court. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Chief Justice Richard Wagner says he's optimistic about today's launch of virtual hearings at the Supreme Court of Canada.

"I feel good. I feel optimistic about it," Wagner told CBC-Radio-Canada. "Although this pandemic was terrible, and is still terrible for every Canadian, we have to see some positive aspect to it and ... one positive aspect to it is the chance, or the opportunity, to use more technology for the justice system in Canada."

"There's no plan B. It is going to work."

The Supreme Court hearings will take place through the video conferencing platform Zoom and will be live-streamed on the court's website. It's the first time in the Supreme Court's history that its hearings have been held virtually.

People watching the webcast will hear the same discussions and arguments they would during an in-person hearing, but some aspects will be different.

"The objective is to try to have the same type of hearing as the traditional one," Wagner said. "Of course it will be different because we won't be in the court. Lawyers will be outside as well, [at] home or their office … [but] we'll wear our robes."

The hearings will be accompanied by simultaneous translation to help people follow along at home, Wagner said.  

Other courts have gone online in response to the pandemic. In Ontario, Chief Justice of the Ontario Superior Court Geoffrey Morawetz said some of the changes brought on by COVID-19 are here to stay.

A paperless court

"We have been forced, and the Ministry has been forced, to accelerate its plans to move to electronic hearings and also to electronic filings and we cannot go back ... it is time for Ontario to push forward ... we cannot go backwards," he said in an April tweet.

Virtual hearings and electronic filings have posed challenges for lower courts and raised concerns about privacy and transparency, but some experts predict there will be no return to the old paper-based system after the pandemic subsides.

Watch: Chief Justice Richard Wagner on virtual hearings:

Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice, Richard Wagner says that after the pandemic is over he is hopeful that some of the technological advances used to stage virtual hearings of the court can be maintained. 0:38

Wagner said Canadian courts are "too far behind" and he wants to see courtrooms go paperless in the future.

"I think that we have to stop using paper, stop using the old ways of introducing evidence before the court," he said. 

"I think that if there is one positive thing that we can keep, is maybe the use of technology for the justice system. And I hope that will be the case whether this crisis lasts six months a year or two years, that this new way of rendering justice will be kept in the future."

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