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Ian Savage, Criminal Defence Lawyers Association

Alberta bill would allow for electronic jury summonses, hearings, trials via videoconference

Monday, November 02, 2020 @ 11:39 AM | By Ian Burns

Alberta has introduced new legislation aimed at moving the needle on modernizing the province’s justice system after the COVID-19 pandemic forced courts and lawyers to adapt to new technologies, and legal observers are calling the changes long overdue.

Bill 38, the Justice Statutes Amendment Act, will update Alberta’s jury selection process to give courts the ability to send juror summonses by e-mail and revise the Provincial Offences Procedures Act to allow Albertans to participate in trials and hearings by videoconference and teleconference. Courts would be able to deal with routine matters like entering pleas and setting trial dates by e-mail, telephone or videoconference. As part of its response to the pandemic, courts across the province began implementing temporary measures to allow for more electronic hearings and digital filing.

Justice Minister Kaycee Madu said Bill 38 will make Alberta’s legal system more effective, responsive and efficient.

“If we have learned anything from the COVID-19 pandemic it is the importance of technology and innovation. We have made a lot of changes to make sure that citizens can still deal with the justice system from the comfort of their homes and offices,” he said. “We hope that this bill will continue that, and as a government we have committed to ensuring that we modernize our court processes and systems to make more efficient uses of technology.”

In addition to the technological changes, the bill will recognize First Nations police services and gives them the power to issue tickets while enforcing First Nations bylaws.

Ian Savage, president of the Calgary-based Criminal Defence Lawyers Association

“For many years [First Nations police services] have done exemplary police work for their communities,” said Madu. “As independent police officers they can be much more sensitive to local issues and cultures. And while these large, sparsely populated regions of the province may be challenging to patrol, these men and women have nonetheless become a trusted presence in their communities.”

And the bill was met with support by many in the provincial legal community. Ian Savage, president of the Calgary-based Criminal Defence Lawyers Association, said COVID-19 has meant the court system is “slowly being dragged into the 21st century 20 years after it started.”

“It has generally been way behind in terms of adapting to technological realities the rest of the world employs, and so much of this is long overdue,” he said. “It is unfortunate it takes a pandemic to prompt these changes, but they have absolutely been crucial to our functioning.”

David Hiebert, president of the Canadian Bar Association Alberta Branch

David Hiebert, president of the Canadian Bar Association (CBA) Alberta Branch, said innovation in the court system is something the CBA has long advocated for.

“We are very pleased to steps being taken to adopt new technology in order to reduce the wait in the court system and improve access to justice,” he said. “Lawyers are not typically early adopters of technology, but in this case they have embraced it because they have had to.”

But it is still an open question as to whether trials should be conducted by videoconference, said Savage.

“There is still much to be said about having the ability to question witnesses face-to-face during the trial process,” he said. “So, I would hesitate to fully endorse video trials, or video proceedings or any matters of substance.”

Bill 36 would also amend Alberta’s legislation on victim restitution and compensation to expand the number of offences eligible for civil forfeiture and expands qualification requirements to be named Queen’s Counsel. It is currently before the provincial legislature.

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