As COVID Ebbs, Our Courts Slowly Reopen

It seems ambitious but the Ministry of the Attorney General plans to reopen a limited number of courthouses on July 6.

I’m not sure if that will happen since I can’t even see a hairdresser in Toronto right now. Still, I realize everyone wants to see our judicial system operating again, so let’s have faith that things will work out.

As COVID Ebbs, Our Courts Slowly Reopen

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According to a June 16 memo from the ministry, 15 courthouses across the province will deal with Family Law matters, including two in Toronto at 311 Jarvis St. and 47 Sheppard Ave. E. The memo asks that members of the legal profession and the public “NOT attend courthouses in person at this time unless you have been scheduled to appear in court or if you are unable to email family court documents relating to a scheduled family law matter.”

Everyone is also warned to stay away “if you have been advised by public health officials, your doctor or the Ontario Ministry of Health to self-isolate.”

I have court dates scheduled for July so I will be donning a face mask and showing up at the appointed time. But what I am really pleased to see is how electronic forms of communication that have been embraced by our judicial system in the past few months.

Judges using Zoom to hear cases and the electronic filing of documents has brought its own set of growing pains, but it has generally worked, and I’m positive this technology will be part of day-to-day court matters once all COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

And it is about time. Itis no secret that the legal profession in Ontario was falling behind in technology. In her latest annual report, Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk lamented the reliance on paper documents in Ontario’s courtrooms.

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“Unlike other jurisdictions, the court system in Ontario is still heavily paper-based, making it inefficient,” she wrote. “In 2018/19, almost 2.5 million documents – over 96% of them paper documents – were filed in Ontario’s court system.”

Thanks to the pandemic, judges and lawyers have been forced to learn how to use video conferencing service and have taken steps to wean themselves off paper. I’m glad to see Ontario’s legal system finally catching up to 2020 standards, though it is unfortunate it took a deadly pandemic to bring about this change. Still, I’m positive we will emerge with a court system that is much more efficient than before, and less expensive for the public.

Before COVID, it was not uncommon for legal counsel to spend the better part of the day travelling to an out-of-town courtroom for a short appearance, or perhaps we had to pay a process server to stand in line for three hours to deliver a document.

Both tasks can now be done from the comfort of our homes or offices, at a significantly lower cost to our clients.

Believe me, it has been a learning curve for all of us. I’m in my 50s and more comfortable with electronic technology than many of my colleagues. Still, I’m a paper person who doesn’t like reading long legal documents from a screen. While electronic communication will save trees, it is so much easier to skim through a 100-page legal document in my hands than to click my way through it electronically.

I know I have to adapt as younger generations of lawyers grew up with this technology, so it is unquestionably the way of the future.

One concern I have is that low-income citizens may not have access to a computer or the internet. That is an issue that has to be addressed, as justice has to be accessible to all, especially the 50-plus per cent of plaintiffs who are self-represented in our family courts and who are not be able to scan documents or take part in video conferences.

When courts reopen ­– partially on July 6 then fully by Nov. 1, according to ministry plans – they will be busy dealing with backlogged cases along with issues arising from the pandemic, as the stress caused by the lockdown is creating more family law disputes,

As this National Post article notes, a legal director of a women’s shelter “is expecting an ‘onslaught’ of women initiating divorce actions this fall as stay-at-home orders relax and women feel safer leaving their homes to stay with family or friends or in a shelter.”

As job losses mount during the pandemic so does the number of separated parents unable to make their support payments, so remedying their situations will tie up family courts in the near future.

In addition, many people have delayed taking any action about their domestic situations during the lockdown. Now that Ontario is on the cusp of reopening, they realize they have to get around to doing something about their home life, and they will be joining the queues at the court, either electronically or in person – physical distancing, of course.

None of us know what the “new normal” will bring, but I trust Ontario’s judicial system will be there for those who need it. I want to do all I can for those in need of legal services, so contact me for a free consultation. Be well and be safe.

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