In courtroom 303 at the Winnipeg Law Courts, provincial court Judge Lindy Choy listens as Crown prosecutor Bryton Moen and defence lawyer Tara Walker make their submissions in the case of a man charged with illegal possession of ammunition.
Submissions over, Choy accepts a joint recommendation that John Harold Stove be sentenced to five months in jail.
"I am satisfied the recommendation is fit and appropriate and I am prepared to impose it under the circumstances," Choy tells Stove, 38.
But for a clerk and a single reporter, Choy is alone in the courtroom: Stove is appearing via video link from Headingley Correctional Centre and Walker and Moen are on the phone.
This has become the new normal in the time of COVID-19 and social distancing, and it has some in the legal community suggesting changes like this could point a new way forward for the justice system when the crisis is over.
“I think when you get to more complicated sentencings, when you are looking at half-day or full-days sentencing, this system is going to have some challenges, but for regular dispositions, and especially ones that are not complicated, this works very well.” — Defence lawyer Tara Walker
Pre-pandemic, Walker might have had to wait up to an hour or longer in docket court before Stove’s case could be heard by a judge. Instead, she waited at her office for an email from a court clerk alerting her she was next in the queue and then logged in to the court phone system
"I think when you get to more complicated sentencings, when you are looking at half-day or full-day sentencing, this system is going to have some challenges, but for regular dispositions, and especially ones that are not complicated, this works very well," she said.
Manitoba Justice and the province’s three court levels have, over the past month, introduced several measures in order to continue functioning, including more teleconferencing and video hearings and changes to bail proceedings.
Changes to the bail triage process mean defence lawyers no longer have to be in court to receive particulars for their clients; they are instead emailed to lawyers, along with a schedule telling them when to appear in bail court.
"There are going to be changes that I don’t know that the courts are going to go back from (when the pandemic is over)," Walker said. "It’s so much more efficient."
“I think(the pandemic) has brought to light the point ‐ do we really need to put that many people in one room when nothing is happening with any of the cases?” — Lawyer Scott Newman
"I think if you look at it again in a couple of weeks from now once the learning curve is over, there is going to be a lot of time-saving ways of creating communication and efficiencies," she said.
Lawyer Scott Newman said an increase in video appearances for accused offenders has meant a reduction in unnecessary travel from jail, especially for those who may be sentenced to time served.
"Obviously somebody should be in court for their trial, but if you’re pleading guilty and getting time served, you are adding two to four hours to the processing time to bring them in and send them back and then release them and bring them back from Headingley or Milner Ridge," he said. "It just adds unnecessary time and delay to matters."
Newman said he hopes the move to streamlining court processes will cause the courts to look more closely at out-of-custody remands. Currently, all out-of-custody cases are being automatically adjourned up to two months. Pre-pandemic, alleged offenders could show up to court four or five times before anything substantive in their cases happened, Newman said.
"I think(the pandemic) has brought to light the point — do we really need to put that many people in one room when nothing is happening with any of the cases?" he said. "What is the utility in that? Is there a better way we can do that, whether that means they send an email to the court staff, instead of having somebody who is employed or has kids sit in a court for two hours?"
While these changes to the court process can be positive, there are possible pitfalls as well, said Criminal Defence Lawyers Association president Gerri Wiebe.
"One of the tenets of the justice system is that not only must justice be done, it must be seen to be done," she said. "So, the more we do remotely, the more we do by teleconference, the more that we do in a more impersonal way, the less justice seems to be done, is the concern."
Someone once said a journalist is just a reporter in a good suit. Dean Pritchard doesn’t own a good suit. But he knows a good lawsuit.
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Updated on Tuesday, April 7, 2020 at 8:52 PM CDT: corrects attribution in pull quote
11:17 PM: Fixes typo.