The near-closure of the court system in the West Kootenay this week follows from a province-wide shutdown resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
B.C. Provincial Court will close across the province with the exception of the courthouses in Vancouver, Kelowna, Victoria and Surrey, all of which will remain open for urgent matters from across the province, in person or by video link.
Those matters include urgent child protection and family cases, criminal trials and sentencing for people who are in custody, and urgent bail hearings.
The provincial court deals with 225,000 cases per year in 80 locations around B.C. including Nelson.
The operation of the B.C. Supreme Court is suspended entirely until further notice.
The B.C. Supreme Court operates in 29 locations around the province including Nelson and Rossland.
“In criminal cases, getting a resolution can take a long time under the best of circumstances,” says Nelson lawyer Janet Connolly, who practises criminal and family law. “This is a guaranteed two-month delay.”
She said this will affect people who have been ordered to abide by specific conditions while their matter is being resolved in or out of court.
“Often when you are arrested you are given an undertaking to do this or that, or to not have contact with someone. You will not be able to apply to change those unless it is urgent.”
And the crown can’t apply to change it either.
“This is very impactful on accused people and their families, and it will be felt by both sides,” Connolly says.
Nelson criminal lawyer Don White also named bail conditions as being the most noticeable problem for his clients after the shutdown.
“Sometimes those can be quite strict, such as curfews, house arrests, not having contact with family member, but there is some provision for allowing for urgent applications to move those types of things along.”
White said he is concerned about a bottleneck in Kelowna, the location where urgent cases from all over the Interior will be referred.
“It depends on how much they can staff these places without putting too many people together, bringing together witness and accused and lawyers by video conference.”
White is also skeptical about representing someone in a video trial.
“It will be more difficult to speak to your client during the trial and make strategic decisions, when you do not have the ability to just chat with them.”
Connolly said in family law she could see one upside: that people will be given more incentive to settle their differences out of court.
“I hope to see that in the other lawyers I deal with. We can say, ‘Look, we have no option of going to court now so let’s really put our shoulder to the wheel and get this done.’”
But the downside, she says, is that intractable cases will get drawn out and “there is a more elevated risk for the children to be exposed to the conflict between the parents, which is what we know to be the most damaging thing in separations.”
Nelson criminal lawyer Blair Suffredine has a more relaxed view than White or Connolly.
He said people in custody will benefit because their cases will be dealt with more quickly.
Because it takes longer for out-of-custody accused to get to court, they probably won’t mind, he said.
“Taking a glass half full point of view, of those that are adjourned because of the delay, some are bound to get dismissed because the cases will be too old to go to trial.”
As for the closure’s effect on his work life, Suffredine said “It is going to give me a forced holiday, because I might get a bunch of [urgent] things moved up and done quickly rather than waiting.
“It is making it pretty relaxed. There won’t be much to do other than drum my fingers on the desk and read case law.”