Court Closures Amid COVID-19: A Silver Lining?
Ontario has officially declared a state of emergency amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and efforts to quell the spread of the coronavirus are now stronger than ever. Indeed, the Federal Government is urging everyone to engage in social distancing, and the courts are no exception.
On March 15, 2020, the Superior Court of Justice published a Notice to the Profession, the Public and the Media Regarding Civil and Family Proceedings (the “Notice”), wherein it announced the suspension of Superior Court of Justice regular operations.
Specifically, the Notice states that all criminal, family and civil matters scheduled to be heard on or after March 17, 2020 are adjourned except for urgent and emergency matters. Matters considered to be “urgent” are set out in the Notice and include motions and applications related to public health and safety and COVID-19; the safety of a child or parent; and time-sensitive civil motions with significant financial repercussions if not heard, among others.
To bring an urgent matter, the motion and application materials can be filed with the court by email. Notably, where it is not possible to email a sworn affidavit, an unsworn affidavit can be delivered as long as the affiant participates in any telephone or videoconference hearing to swear or affirm the affidavit. Urgent matters may be heard and determined in writing, by teleconference or videoconference, unless the court determines that an in-person hearing is necessary and safe.
Although people are being advised to avoid unnecessary attendances at Court, they nevertheless remain open and parties can continue to process “regular filings”. However, the flexible procedures that have been put in place for urgent matters do not extend to regular filings, which remain subject to the Rules of Civil Procedure.
The court’s response to COVID-19 is a prime example of how the legal system as a whole is being forced to lean on technology in these unusual and uncertain times. While many legal professionals have already adopted digital practices, the courts continue to be behind the times. The Auditor General’s latest audit of Ontario’s court system found that “the Ministry’s pace in modernizing the court system remained slow, and the system is still heavily paper-based, making it inefficient and therefore keeping it from realizing potential cost savings”. Perhaps this period will give the much-needed impetus for courts to modernize their operations by using electronic service, filing, hearings, and document management more routinely. This would likely be a welcome change for all.
Thanks for reading and stay safe!