Editorial

The Manitobans stuck in a pandemic-induced backlog within the justice system don’t want to hear excuses. These people include victims of crime waiting to testify against their attackers, people in jail while awaiting the opportunity to seek bail, and people who have been improperly arrested and are eager to get to court to clear their name.

The Manitobans stuck in a pandemic-induced backlog within the justice system don’t want to hear excuses. These people include victims of crime waiting to testify against their attackers, people in jail while awaiting the opportunity to seek bail, and people who have been improperly arrested and are eager to get to court to clear their name.

For the past several months, many such people didn’t get their days in court. They got put off, told COVID-19 restrictions have slowed the wheels of justice. Unfortunately, crime doesn’t stop because the justice system does.

Some pandemic-forced court reforms could stick

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Justice Minister David Lametti responds to a question during a news conference about training for judges Monday, Oct. 19, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Justice Minister David Lametti responds to a question during a news conference about training for judges Monday, Oct. 19, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Posted: 12:44 PM Feb. 25, 2021

OTTAWA - The COVID-19 pandemic appears set to force a modernization of Canada's justice system.

Already grappling with a backlog of cases, courts across the country were forced to pivot swiftly when the pandemic hit last year and embrace new technologies and processes to follow COVID-19 restrictions while keeping the justice system working.

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The provincial court, Manitoba’s busiest court division, announced this week it will begin "incremental steps towards reopening," with multi-day trials and preliminary hearings.

The resumption of full legal services is important, but in-person "congestion" at court is an issue because of ongoing COVID-19 concerns regarding adherence to physical distancing and mask wearing in courtrooms which have limited space, according to a joint letter signed by representatives of the Manitoba Association of Crown Attorneys, the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association and the Legal Aid Lawyers Association.

In addressing such understandable worries, there was an encouraging development in Ottawa last Wednesday, where federal Justice Minister David Lametti introduced a bill that will make some technological choices permanently available in the justice system.

The legislation would alter the Criminal Code and other laws to expand video or audio remote options for preliminary inquiries, pleas, sentencing hearings and some trials. All parties involved in each case would need to consent to replacing in-person appearances with technological alternatives.

To its credit, Manitoba has already been experimenting on a small scale with digital options. COVID-19 precautions have spurred this province to productive creativity with video links for matters such as a sampling of guilty pleas, remands, bail hearings and sentencing decisions.

The virtual appearances have been welcome from a public-health viewpoint, but they also save time and trouble for the many people involved in the court system. As one example, when it was mandatory to appear before a judge, a person in a Winnipeg penal institution seeking a routine remand would require transportation and the supervision of corrections and court officers, a process taking up to half a day of staff time.

Online proceedings would perhaps be unsuitable for longer, more complicated matters such as full-blown trials — no one would expect a judge or a jury to watch a video screen for a trial lasting days — but teleconferencing on password-protected links with a high level of security should become a permanent option even after the pandemic has subsided.

The virtual appearances have been welcome from a public–health viewpoint, but they also save time and trouble for the many people involved in the court system.

It’s an alternative that would be particularly welcome in the remote regions of Manitoba, where people are often denied timely access to legal help and court hearings. A Free Press series reported systemic problems with northern courts, including stories of how the rights of two northern Manitobans were violated because they spent 51 days and 23 days, respectively, in custody without a bail hearing.

Amid the many crises resulting from the pandemic, a silver lining seems to be an enhanced appreciation of the communication that can be conducted by technology in several areas, including the justice system.

The experimental video workaraound employed by the Manitoba justice system during the pandemic is moving in the right direction, as is the proposed new bill by the federal government that will entrench technological options in the justice system.

It’s a legal axiom that justice must be seen to be done. Often, it can be seen to be done without being in the same room.