A Phased Approach to Normalcy: Resuming In-Court Hearings in Ontario

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Written by: Lindsay Charles and Lori Khaouli, Summer Student

The June 25th, 2020 Notice to the Profession (“Notice”)[1] addressed Litigants, Accused, Media and Members of the Public to provide an update on the gradual reopening of the Superior Court of Justice (“SCJ”), indicating that the SCJ is expected to permit some in-court hearings at certain court locations beginning July 6th, 2020. The Notice outlines the steps that must be completed prior to the resumption of in-court hearings.

Courthouse Site Assessments

With guidance from various Ontario public health leaders, the Ministry of the Attorney General (“Ministry”) plans to implement health and safety measures and conduct site assessments to ensure matters can be heard safely in courtrooms.

The Public Services Health and Safety Association (“PHSA”), a team of 30 occupational health and safety professional consultants, have been retained to conduct COVID-19 risk assessments at each Ontario courthouse. Among the many matters to be assessed at each courthouse are courtroom reconfiguration, room capacity, courtroom disinfection, plexiglass barriers, and personal protective equipment (PPE). Further, the Ministry plans to share a comprehensive guide containing information on health and safety measures.

Phased Return to In-Person Hearings

The Ministry plans to re-open SCJ courtrooms across Ontario in gradual phases. Within each phase, a fixed number of courtrooms will be deemed safe for use upon determining that the health and safety of courthouse users can be adequately protected at each site. By July 6th, 2020, 56 courtrooms are expected to be deemed safe for use. The Ministry plans to have additional courtrooms for the SCJ to be available by September and November 2020.

Resumption of Some In-Court Hearings

On July 6, 2020, there will only be 56 courtrooms available for use by the SCJ. Urgent trials will be given priority, while jury matters will continue to be deferred until September 2020. Due to the extra screening requirements being implemented, litigants and lawyers are being asked to arrive at least 30 minutes in advance. The courthouses will have restrictions on the number of people allowed in; therefore, litigants are being asked to bring family members or other support to court with them only when absolutely necessary.

Gowning

The requirement to gown for in-court appearances in the SCJ continues to be suspended.

NOTICE TO THE PROFESSION IN THE CENTRAL WEST REGION

The Notice to the Central West Region sets out the specific procedures for the partial re-opening of the courts in the Central West region in the coming months[2]. Outlined below are some of the highlights of the Notice:

  • By July 6, 2020, Brampton expects to have 5 courtrooms available for all SCJ proceedings. Additional courtrooms are set to be available by September and November. Milton, Orangeville, Guelph, and Owen Sound will only have one courtroom each until November 2020.
  • Due to the limited number of courtrooms, the Court will continue to hear matters by videoconference, unless an in-court hearing is determined to be necessary and in the interests of justice for a particular matter.
  • Strict compliance with all health and safety measures throughout the courthouse will be enforced; counsel, parties, and members of the public who do not comply with the measures will be denied admission or required to leave the courthouse.
  • Materials are to be filed electronically with the court office, unless the parties do not have the financial or technical capability of electronic filing.
  • Time estimates for hearings will be strictly enforced.

What Next?

All users of Superior Court of Justice courtrooms are expected to stay up-to-date on the health and safety guidelines being released. As the province continues to ease restrictions, Ontario’s public health leaders and the Ministry will continue to ensure that courtrooms are safe for use before opening up, and that precautionary measures are being strictly enforced within each courthouse.

[1] Superior Court of Justice, Notice to the Profession Litigants, Accused, Media and the Public (Effective July 6, 2020), (June 25 2020) online: <https://www.ontariocourts.ca/scj/notices-and-orders-covid-19/notice-june-25-2020/>.
[2] Superior Court of Justice, Notice to the Profession – Central West Region (Effective July 6, 2020), (June 25 2020) online: <https://www.ontariocourts.ca/scj/notices-and-orders-covid-19/>.

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