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COVID-19 judicial action committee publishes progress report

Friday, July 30, 2021 @ 2:22 PM | By Terry Davidson

A special committee established to help Canada’s courts deal with the pandemic has “sparked innovation” and created “a window of opportunity to make lasting changes to the justice system,” states the federal government.

These comments come following the release of the first commissioned progress report of the Action Committee on Court Operations in Response to COVID-19, a group of judges and justice officials put together in May 2020, just after the health crisis hit Canada and courthouses across the country began curtailing operations or shutting down in the name of physical distancing and other health measures. 

According to a news release from Justice Canada, the committee sparked innovation during what has been an unpresented time for courts.

“This Progress Report demonstrates how the action committee, supported by many participants in the justice system, has played a key role in stabilizing and restoring court operations during the pandemic,” said federal Minister of Justice and Attorney General David Lametti, who co-chairs the committee with Chief Justice Richard Wagner. “The courts are a pillar of Canada’s democracy and provide an essential service to Canadians. I look forward to continuing to work with Chief Justice Wagner and the action committee members to ensure the safety and equal access of justice system participants.”

Since its inception, the committee has published various guidance reports, including the resumption of jury trials and maintaining the open court principle during the pandemic, restoring court operations in Canada’s remote North and how the pandemic has impacted access to justice for the marginalized.

According to the report, which has been posted on the Office of the Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs Canada webpage, the committee was successful in strengthening communication and collaboration between Ottawa and the country’s courts, while maintaining the required separation between the two.

The committee, states the report, was also able to promote effective communication between courts across the country, while acknowledging instances of provincial and territorial jurisdiction in administering justice.

“The action committee served as a reminder that for the different actors in the justice system to collaborate to respond effectively to a crisis, or to build a better system more generally, they need to understand each other’s reality,” it states. “The people closest to the courts, including members of the judiciary represented on the action committee, could see how the pandemic both created new challenges and shed light on existing challenges, amplifying their actual or potential impacts on the system. The pandemic also accelerated the pace at which some ongoing challenges were addressed, as courts worked to ensure their continued operation in light of the public health crisis.”

Since May, the action committee has produced 21 publications and “tip sheets” in its bid to offer “non-prescriptive” guidance to chief justices, justice ministers and court personnel during this “unique setting of court operations.”

Subjects included the use of health protocols when adapting to different steps of a criminal jury trial; a study on streamlining processes for jury summons and selection; and a look into the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on access to justice for the marginalized.

The report also notes the action committee has “started to consider the serious issue of delays caused by the pandemic.”

“Many courts have implemented innovative solutions to address these delays, and the action committee has started to consolidate these practices with a view to providing support to courts as they address this challenge,” it states.

Committee co-chair Chief Justice Wagner talked of Canada’s courts, like everyone else, being impacted by the health crisis.

“As this Progress Report shows, the operations of courts across the country have not been spared from this crisis,” said Chief Justice Wagner in a statement. “For more than a year now, the action committee has made it its mission to safeguard the right of Canadians to an accessible and safe justice system. … I am very pleased that the action committee plans to continue its efforts to this end.”

Questions sent to Justice Canada were not answered by press time. 

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