Magistrates’ Court makes’ good progress’ to reduce COVID backlog

BC’s highest trial court admits it has a COVID-19 backlog, but is making “good progress” in reducing the problem.

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Officials at BC’s top trial court say there is an ongoing COVID-related backlog in courts, but “good progress” is being made to reduce the problem.

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In March 2020, when the pandemic struck, the British Columbia Supreme Court stayed all except urgent cases to ensure the safety of court participants.

Several months later, due process resumed and all cases now regularly heard by the Supreme Court are conducted in person, by video conference or by telephone.

In the spring of 2020, the pandemic displaced more than 1,100 trials, including 786 civil trials, 160 criminal trials and 167 family trials.

Since then, 173 of those cases have been heard, 232 have been booked for future dates or are currently being heard, and 352 are no longer pending, according to statistics released by the court.

Among civil and family lawsuits that do not yet have future dates, it is likely that these cases have been dropped or settled, but if not, further action is needed before continuing to proceed in court.

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Of the 160 criminal trials of displaced persons, 105 have already been heard, three are currently being heard, four are expected to be heard and 48 are no longer in progress.

“There continue to be adjournments and delays related to the pandemic, many of which are beyond the control of the court, which arise when parties or lawyers are unable to proceed, including cases where a party or a lawyer may have to self-isolate due to COVID-19 symptoms or exposure, ”the court said.

“In addition, the temporary stay of civil jury trials has been extended until October 8, 2022, although civil jury trials that were originally scheduled to take place before that date are being held before a judge alone.

The court, which said it was making “good progress” in reducing the remaining backlog, added that when trials and chamber hearings are shifted, it is usually for the same reasons as before the pandemic.

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“The court continues to see a high volume of cases, including a large number of very long and complex trials, without a full complement of judges to hear them all in a timely manner.”

The pandemic has had a direct impact on a lengthy double murder trial in Vancouver court that saw the two defendants earlier this year get COVID, delaying proceedings.

In two other cases, Supreme Court justices took a different approach on whether criminal trial jurors should be fully immunized before serving on a jury.

Regarding the suspension of civil juries, the B.C. government is now considering a number of options for the future of civil juries, including a proposal to abolish them altogether, a decision to which several legal groups like the Canadian Bar Association (British Columbia branch).

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Asked to comment on any pending court backlogs, the provincial court, which hears most court cases in British Columbia, noted a report released in September.

The report noted that during the pandemic, the court saw a substantial increase in the total number of active criminal cases, but that those numbers have since declined to pre-pandemic levels.

But the number of active criminal cases over 18 months old continues to increase during the pandemic, with 9% of those cases now over 18 months old.

“The increase in the number of criminal cases over 18 months old may be due, in part, to the suspension of regular court operations that occurred at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the office said. from the Chief Justice in a press release. .

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Aleem Bharmal, senior vice-president of the Canadian Bar Association (BCbranch), told Postmedia that in cases of alleged unreasonable delay in trial in criminal cases, courts look at all the circumstances and allow leeway in exceptional circumstances.

He said he spoke to the criminal bar who believe the pandemic would likely be considered an exceptional circumstance.

“Therefore, the general consensus is that a case is unlikely to be dismissed solely because of legal delays due to the pandemic.”

Regarding the statistics on the “time to trial” for provincial court cases in general, he said he was “surprised and happy” that there had been an overall decrease in the time to trial of seven percent. from 2019 to 2021.

kfraser@postmedia.com

twitter.com/keithrfraser

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