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Nova Scotia court now doing virtual civil hearings, settlements

Friday, May 08, 2020 @ 12:49 PM | By Terry Davidson

Nova Scotia’s Supreme Court in Halifax is conducting virtual hearings and settlement conferences for certain non-urgent civil matters in a bid to “improve access” while still protecting people’s health during the ongoing pandemic.

According to a May 7 news release, the court had been testing the new remote system through “mock hearings to ensure that actual court proceedings can be properly recorded and conducted in a functional, reliable and secure way.”

The system, which involves the use of video and voice calling for matters such as motions and in-chamber applications, has even been put through a pilot project involving real situations: a motion in a civil matter heard April 30, as was a criminal pretrial done as a one-off test. The first virtual settlement conference took place May 5.

For now, going virtual will be for only civil matters, but this could expand in the future to some family law matters, as well as criminal resolution conferences and more pretrials, a court spokesperson confirmed.

According to the release, all the matters in that test phase “went smoothly from a technological standpoint.”

It goes on to detail the new system’s use of Skype.

“Thanks to the extensive efforts of the Judiciary, the Nova Scotia Department of Justice Court Services Division and the province’s Digital Services team, the Supreme Court has developed a virtual court setup using Skype for Business and the existing court recording system. Under this new setup, matters can be heard entirely remotely by telephone or video to protect the lawyers, parties, court staff and judges involved.”

It went on to note that while the court “continues to operate under an essential services model when it comes to in-person proceedings,” it has “made advances to expand service, where it is safe to do so.”

“This most recent step allows the Court to further expand its operations without the need for additional staff working at the courthouses,” it states.

For the civil matters to be heard virtually, parties must be represented by counsel; the matter must not take more than four hours; there can be no viva voce evidence, including cross-examination; and all parties must consent to using the virtual system.

However, it notes, these conditions may be loosened in the future.

But the court “expects that there may still be difficulties with the technology and people’s comfort with it.

“For virtual court hearings to be successful, counsel and the parties involved are encouraged to be patient, cooperative and flexible,” states the release. “In turn, the judges presiding over virtual court hearings will make every effort to be flexible, where feasible and appropriate.

“If at any point during a virtual court proceeding a judge feels the new environment is affecting the integrity of the proceeding, the judge will have the sole discretion to adjourn the matter to another time or to await resumption of in-person hearings.”

Parties involved, including members of the media, are cautioned to “conduct themselves as though there were physically appearing in a courtroom.”

“All manner of decorum, formalities and court practice must be adhered to, including proper business attire. … All virtual court hearings have the same expectations and rules as in-person hearings.”

The judge will have sole discretion to adjourn a matter to another time or wait for the opportunity for an in-person hearing if the new system negatively impacts “the integrity” of the proceedings.

Further details, including requirements and considerations for participating parties, can be found in the release.