Excellent innovation to reopen B.C.’s traffic court | Kyla Lee
Monday, July 20, 2020 @ 11:52 AM | By Kyla Lee
And like every other court that has reopened, things will look different. However, the changes in traffic court are much more significant and innovative than the measures taken in other courts throughout the province.
By way of history, on April 30, 2020, the B.C. provincial court updated its pandemic response procedures and adjourned most court appearances until after July 3. But one set of court appearances was only pushed forward a few weeks: traffic court. Traffic court was pushed forward until May 29, and then again until June 15.
And on June 12, the B.C. provincial court released an announcement to the effect that traffic court dates were adjourned. Without a beginning or an end. Just generally adjourned. And no anticipated date of court commencing again. This led to a great deal of confusion, as disputants began receiving letters to announce that their traffic court dates were still set to go ahead; this contradicted the information on the B.C. provincial court website. There was nothing to resolve the conflicting information.
However, as of July 2, the B.C. provincial court made a formal announcement about traffic court. It was going to experience a phased reopening. Instead of having court take place in the traditional courtrooms and during the court day, traffic court would be moved to evenings, weekends and out of the courthouses.
Schools, university campuses and community centres around British Columbia are now the new traffic court.
This is not surprising: the courtrooms used for traffic matters in B.C. are, by and large, smaller courtrooms with insufficient space for physical distancing measures. The hallways and areas outside the courtrooms are also narrow and do not provide sufficient room to have a conversation with the officer to negotiate or exchange disclosure without violating physical distancing policies. And with B.C. sheriff service members enforcing the physical distancing rules in courthouses, this would make the accommodation of traffic court near impossible.
In some courthouses, like Vancouver and Port Coquitlam, there is an interview room where disputants can speak with the officer. The size of the interview rooms does not allow for two metres between individuals. And in an enclosed, unventilated space, a conversation about the evidence and charges and potential resolution becomes a danger to the disputant and the officer.
And then there’s seating inside the courtrooms. In North Vancouver, Chilliwack, New Westminster and Abbotsford, the seating is extremely limited and very tight. In fact, in Abbotsford the seating is on pews. In New Westminster, there are only about 16 chairs in the whole room. Everyone else stands, close together, shoulder-to-shoulder against the walls. The traffic courtrooms are often very small. This made sense before. It poses a risk now.
But the innovation in how traffic court is being changed is an excellent step for our justice system.
As someone who practises in traffic court on a regular basis, I know that for disputants attending a courthouse in the middle of the work day is difficult. Unlike a traditional court appearance where an accused person can arrange for an agent or book time off work for a trial in advance, traffic court is more unpredictable. Court time is at a premium, and agency appearances are only permitted in a limited capacity.
By moving court to evenings and weekends not only does the court limit the number of people who are coming to the courthouse at any given time, but the court also ensures that people who have work or family obligations during the day are better able to attend their appearance and get the benefit of the dispute.
Court start times are also being staggered. This provides greater certainty for disputants who wish to have their cases heard.
Previously, traffic court matters were scheduled at 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., with 20 to 30 disputants in each session. Court would sit until 12:30 p.m. before taking a lunch break, and then sit again until 4:30 p.m. This meant you could be scheduled for 9:30 but your case could be pushed until 11:30 based on the number of matters proceeding to trial that day.
With staggered start times there are fewer disputants and fewer matters at any given point. Start times are staggered in half-hour slots, recognizing that most traffic ticket trials last 15 to 30 minutes. It is unclear as of yet what will happen with longer matters, but at least people who show up at 10 a.m. for their appearance can have confidence that they will be heard at that time.
There was clearly some creative thinking behind the continuation of traffic court.
It is my hope that these changes become permanent. This new schedule and location-setting for traffic court should represent a test. If it leads to more resolution of trial matters, greater expediency and higher rates of disputants attending court then it should be considered as a full-time solution to traffic court’s troubles in British Columbia.
I for one am proud of the way our B.C. provincial court took action on this issue. And I’m excited for my first appearances this week in the new and improved B.C. traffic court.
Kyla Lee is a criminal lawyer and partner at Acumen Law Corporation in Vancouver. Her practice focuses on impaired driving. She is the host of a podcast, Driving Law, and a weekly video series Cases That Should Have Gone to the Supreme Court of Canada, But Didn’t! She is called to the bar in Yukon and British Columbia. Follow her at @IRPLawyer.
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