A Judicial System in Crisis
Ontario's judicial system has implemented several significant changes to adapt to COVID-19-related restrictions. Since the court essentially closed its doors to all but the most urgent matters in March 2020, it has been consulting with various stakeholders to formulate a plan of action to address the vulnerabilities in our judicial system that this crisis has exposed.
The greatest vulnerability exposed during this pandemic is that our system relies heavily on face-to-face contact. Before the pandemic, most court documents were required to be filed in person at the courthouse, and the majority of motions, applications, pre-trials and trials required in-person appearances.
Since the pandemic, the courts have issued multiple regional and provincial practice directions and notices to the profession. These have provided updates on service interruptions and the steps the courts have been taking to adapt to the COVID-19 restrictions to move matters forward. One of the most notable changes was the suspension of limitation periods, which was made retroactive to March 16, 2020, and will remain in effect until September 14, 2020.1
Courts Continue to Hear Urgent Matters
Despite the interruptions, the courts have managed to ensure that urgent matters continue to be heard. This has been achieved by permitting electronic filings and broadening the scope of matters allowed to be heard in writing or via telephone or video conference. Ontario did not have any standardized procedures for electronic hearings when the pandemic began, nor did there exist a uniform platform for e-filing or phone/video conferences. That void resulted in varying protocols across jurisdictions and privacy concerns.
Long Overdue Modernization
In response, an E-Hearing Task Force was created at the Ministry of the Attorney General's request and the Chief Justice of Ontario. The intention was to address systemic shortcomings that came to light during the pandemic and propose solutions that would meet the bench and bar's needs and, importantly, the public they both serve. The Task Force was organized by the Advocates Society and was made up of lawyers from differing practice areas, representatives from various law associations, judges, and court staff. The Task Force published the Best Practices for Remote Hearings, which guides anyone who may be required to participate in a remote hearing.2
Most recently, Chief Justice Morawetz announced that the Ministry of the Attorney General had procured CaseLines, a cloud-based document sharing and storage e-hearing platform, for remote and in-person court proceedings. Chief Justice Morawetz advised that the platform's testing would be rolled out for select civil motions and pre-trials in Toronto on August 10, 2020. The platform will be expanded to all Toronto civil, Divisional Court, Commercial and Estate List and bankruptcy matters on August 24, 2020.3
The shift toward electronic filings and hearings has the potential to lead to increased efficiency. It is expected to save time, resources and money for the courts, legal representatives, and clients. Ontario's judicial system was long overdue to modernize and adapt to technological developments. While an emergency brought on these changes, many will likely remain after the restrictions are lifted and become the new normal for Courts and practitioners alike.
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