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Criminal lawyers group urges courts to ‘implement systems’ for remote access in wake of COVID-19

Friday, March 20, 2020 @ 10:43 AM | By Amanda Jerome

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Criminal Lawyers’ Association (CLA) rallied its 1,500 members to volunteer and be present at every courthouse in Ontario over the past week. According to a release, the goal was to “secure the release of hundreds of persons who might otherwise have been at high risk of infection while incarcerated.”

However, with the risk to counsel being real as well, CLA president John Struthers released a statement that said it is “with regret, and in order to protect our members and the public: The Criminal Lawyers’ Association has determined that we must have our volunteers leave all courthouses after Friday, March 20th at 12 noon.”

Cassandra DeMelo, CLA

Although the association’s volunteers will be leaving the courthouses physically, Cassandra DeMelo, the CLA’s women’s vice-president, said counsel are still offering the court their assistance.

“We’re not backing away from helping our clients,” she said. “We are not walking away from them and we’re not walking away from our promise to the court to be officers of the court and to do our duty to them. What we’re asking for is for them [the court] to quickly invest in their ability to allow us to do everything by either video or audio, where multiple members can do their various roles remotely.”

“That’s simply what this time calls for,” she stressed.

Struthers’s statement also explained that the association’s volunteers will “all be available to work remotely” and will put themselves “at the disposal of the chief justice, regional senior justices, local administrative justices, Legal Aid Ontario and on behalf of the clients to act.”

“We are here to serve the justice system but we can no longer do so while putting our health and the health of our loved ones at risk. We all must work to flatten the curve and give our health care system a fighting chance. Our off-site embedded volunteers will continue,” Struthers added. “We anticipate the Ontario Court of Justice will implement systems to allow us all to work remotely so we can safely work together while we battle COVID-19.”

DeMelo explained that the CLA’s effort since March 16 has been to help reduce the number of bodies in the courthouse, so it could “reduce the desire or the need felt by our colleagues to go in because they didn’t want to leave their clients stranded.” Their plan was to let their colleagues in the criminal bar know that “they have a competent, and friendly and familiar face at their local courthouse who they can rely on to send instructions to if the matter is not one of the presumptively adjourned dates.”

“I don’t think there’s any courthouse that got missed. We intentionally tried to find volunteers for every single courthouse,” she said, noting that the CLA organized each day by reviewing the daily court lists online.

“As of Monday, 8,400 people were in custody,” DeMelo explained, noting that by Wednesday night that number had been reduced to 7,000.

“So 1,400 people have been helped either by duty counsel or by the CLA in tandem with, of course, Crowns taking much more favourable positions for release due to the intensified concerns of having a prisoner potentially test positive for COVID-19 in the jails and what that would do to that population,” she explained.

DeMelo noted that Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice took the lead by “just simply shutting things down and putting them [matters] over until June.” The other courts have followed, making adjustments in their own way with trials and preliminary hearings set to continue.

“In the landscape right now and how serious the concerns about COVID-19 are getting, [it] just no longer felt like a safe risk that any of us should have to take,” said DeMelo about being physically present in court.

DeMelo noted that what the CLA has accomplished in the past week is “quite remarkable” because most of its membership is made up of sole or small firms.

“What we’ve managed to do is take 1,500 lawyers across Ontario who have nothing in common other than the fact that we are defence lawyers practising in Ontario and we’ve mobilized in a way that was so dedicated and so organized and quick, and we were able to do great things this week,” she said.

“My message to lawyers across Ontario is when we can just move past the real concerns that exist in our justice system and realize that this is a bigger crisis then probably most of the issues we face in the law; we can do great things. What we need to encourage each other to do is take a step back and ask ourselves ‘is this legal issue really worth risking the lives of myself, my family or those I come into contact with?’ And if the answer to that is ‘no,’ then stay home,” she added.

The CLA is not the only organization concerned about the risk COVID-19 poses to inmates. An open letter posted to Twitter on March 19 has called on the government to release all youth, the particularly vulnerable, people in pretrial detention and immigrants and refugees.

“As people and organizations dedicated to supporting individuals who are imprisoned and their communities, we are concerned about the lack of protocols to protect and prioritize the health of those who remain behind bars. People should be released to the extent possible. We demand a response to COVID-19 that leaves no one behind and centres those most impacted,” the letter, signed by 47 organizations and over 770 people, states.

The letter has been signed by organizations such as the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, the Canadian Prison Law Association, the Law Union of Ontario and Legal Aid for All.

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