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Chief Justice Martel Popescul, Court of Queen's Bench for Saskatchewan.

Prairie court limits lawyers’ time to argue while in chambers

Friday, July 15, 2022 @ 4:42 PM | By Terry Davidson


Heeding lessons learned during the pandemic, a top judge in Saskatchewan is confident that setting strict time limits on lawyers’ arguments in chambers sessions will be a welcome move toward greater efficiency.

Starting Sept. 1, the Court of Queen’s Bench for Saskatchewan will begin limiting lawyers’ time to argue their cases in chambers to 30 minutes. Should more time be needed, they will have to apply to the presiding judge via a letter to their local registrar no later than two days before the session.

“These times are maximums and all arguments are subject to the direction of the presiding chambers judge,” states a directive issued by Queen’s Bench Chief Justice Martel Popescul.

Chief Justice Martel Popescul, Court of Queen's Bench for Saskatchewan

During a recent interview with The Lawyer’s Daily, the veteran judge said the idea came out of operational moves the court made during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March 2020, during the start of the pandemic, chambers sessions — in-court, pre-trial hearings dealing with matters such as interim child custody, security for costs or demand for disclosure — were halted save for those deemed urgent.

To address the resulting backlog, Chief Justice Popescul in June 2020 ran a three week “chambers blitz” — a concentrated, “all hands-on deck” effort to hear those matters that had been postponed. A feature of the blitz was limiting arguments to the half-hour, whereas before there were no real time limits.

Chief Justice Popescul said this move proved to be successful in dealing with the backlog. As a result, a committee of lawyers and judges was formed to review the chambers process. In the end, the committee recommended the “momentum” from of the blitz be continued in the name of a speedier process.

Hence this directive.

“By limiting it to a half hour, it does a couple of things,” said Chief Justice Popescul. “First, it truly causes the sides to focus. You know you don’t need to use the full half hour, but if you don’t think you can get the job done within a half hour, then there’s provision to apply for extra time. The default is that you have no more than a half hour, but if you think that this is really a special matter that is going to take longer than that, then you can apply to the judge, and you’ll be given a special time to deal with that.”

Chief Justice Popescul was asked if he expects to see an onslaught of applications from lawyers seeking more time to make their arguments.

“I really don’t know; time will tell, and we’ll assess it. It’s an idea we’re going to try, and if it turns out that it’s more bother than it’s worth — you know, the doctrine of unintended consequences can sometimes creep into things — we can pivot and change it back to where it was. … I think, though, that most of the time, in most of the applications that we hear, [they] should be able to be dealt with within that time frame.”

Apropos of this, he noted the likely possibility there will be “specialized cases that may require more time.”

“And if they do, then I’m sure the [presiding] judge is going to permit parties the opportunity to fully present their case. It’s not lost on me that, say, an application for security for costs in Saskatchewan, right now, before these changes are in, a lawyer could spend three hours arguing that matter. But in the Supreme Court of Canada, if it went there, they’d be limited to a specified time. … So, if your appeal to the Supreme Court can be time limited, why should your initial argument before the chambers judge not also be time limited?”

But he did acknowledge the initiative by his court will be a “work in progress.”

“The primary focus is having justice be done, not necessarily expediency. But expediency and access to justice and all of those things are important features.”

Some other jurisdictions were asked if they, too, have time limits for such proceedings.

Manitoba’s courts spokesperson Aimee Fortier said that “[w]hile each of our courts will discuss in advance the amount of time counsel anticipates needing for submissions, there is no written directive that speaks to limitations such [as this].”

In Nova Scotia, the practices of its Supreme Court is governed by civil procedure rules.

“The court relies on parties/counsel to select chambers appearances based on their estimate of the time required to complete a matter,” said acting publication manager and executive office coordinator Amanda Guitard in an e-mail. “Sometimes a judge convenes a conference to discuss with parties/counsel how much court time is required for the hearing of a chambers motion.”

Bruce Cohen, communications officer for British Columbia’s Superior Courts, said the province’s Supreme Court “does not have a practice direction that places a time limit on oral submissions in chambers applications.”

“At the time of filing an application counsel or the applicant must estimate the length of time required to hear the application,” he said.

If you have any information, story ideas or news tips for The Lawyer’s Daily, please contact Terry Davidson at t.davidson@lexisnexis.ca or call 905-415-5899.