The way that we practice law has shifted rapidly over these past couple of weeks as we social distance ourselves. This includes the adoption of electronic means of communication such as video conferencing for things that would have seemed impossible only a couple of weeks ago such as the witnessing of Wills or the commissioning of affidavits. There has also been a significant expansion of the courts hearing matters virtually, with the court currently hearing urgent matters virtually through the use of video conferencing or conference calls with the scope of what is being heard appearing to be expanded.
Although, generally speaking, I believe that most legal practitioners would likely be in agreement that the court and/or the various administrative bodies have responded fairly quickly to implementing new electronic methods and means of practicing law under trying times, this does not necessarily mean that the shift to the more virtual form of practicing law is not without its hiccups or concerns.
One of the areas that may need further consideration is the application of the “open court” principle if hearings are to shift to being heard virtually. It is generally accepted that a fundamental principle of our justice system is that the courts are open to being attended by anyone in the general public, with the court only restricting the general public’s access to attend and/or review a matter under very limited circumstances. As matters shift to being heard virtually, with a potential attendee to a video and/or telephone conference likely needing an access code to attend the matter, is there the risk that the “open court” principle could be impacted?
The Toronto Star recently reported about the steps and efforts that they were having to take to still be provided with electronic access to matters before the court during the pandemic. Although the article notes that they were having difficulty being provided with access for certain matters, it noted that they had been successful in obtaining electronic access to matters in others. Hopefully as time progresses any issues are able to be worked out.
One unknown element is whether any of these changes will become permanent after the pandemic has subsided. If elements such as virtual hearings should become more permanent steps will likely need to be taken to ensure that as part of the more permanent shift to virtual and electronic hearings that the “open court” principle is not lost.
Thank you for reading and stay safe and healthy.