The unprecedented directive to minimize social contact in an effort to battle the novel coronavirus pandemic is having a significant effect on the Ontario justice system, forcing the courts to curtail operations for weeks, if not months.
The Chief Justice of the Superior Court of Justice, Geoffrey Morawetz, has issued a series of notices outlining the moves, telling jurors to stay away unless contacted and effectively suspending all regular operations of the court.
While some degree of disruption was inevitable due to the unique challenges posed by the pandemic, most observers — including judges, lawyers and litigants alike — agree that the extent of the curtailment in Ontario has another cause: that the justice system has never caught up with modern technology, and thus is totally unequipped to operate under the current conditions.
The developments in Ontario escalated on March 15, when the Chief Justice, in what is believed to be a first in Canadian judicial history, made a sweeping order: “All criminal family and civil matters scheduled to be heard on or after Tues. March 17, 2020 are adjourned,” he declared, confirming that only “urgent matters” during this “emergency period” would be heard.
A separate notice was issued for all criminal matters before the court, with all accused persons with matters to be heard by the court in March adjourned to June 2, 2020.
During the emergency period, Chief Justice Morawetz set the rules for what would qualify as an urgent and emergency matter. Cases related to public health and safety and COVID-19, including any applications by the Chief Medical Officer of Health have priority.