Trials delayed by the pandemic? “Not the dreaded catastrophe”

The legal delays caused by the pandemic did not turn out to be “the dreaded disaster”, note the chief justices of the Court of Quebec and the Superior Court. According to them, Quebecers can breathe: their disputes submitted to the courts will not therefore be postponed indefinitely due to COVID-19.

When the health crisis forced the shutdown of many institutions in March 2020, the courthouses were not spared: they closed their doors for about three months to prevent contagion, except for certain urgent hearings, such as the medical care authorizations. A gradual resumption of judicial activities followed at the beginning of June, then a full resumption in September.

A year and a half later, some are worried that the temporary suspension of activities has increased the pile of pending cases.

“It is not bogged down by the pandemic,” maintains the Chief Justice of the Superior Court of Quebec, Jacques R. Fournier. ” It’s almost business as usual He says, as he estimates the delays at a few weeks, or even a month and a half, but no more.

“And it is far from the disaster that was announced. “

The story is similar to the Court of Quebec: in an interview, Chief Justice Lucie Rondeau said she could not say that all the delay has been made up, but underlines that “what we see is very encouraging.”

However, she refuses to put on rose-colored glasses: delays before having a trial date, there were already before the pandemic, particularly in certain regions weakened by the lack of judges and staff. She recalls that from March to June 2020, cases unfortunately had to be postponed en bloc.

At the Quebec Ministry of Justice, we say we are unable to “precisely quantify the delay that the pandemic could potentially have caused in the justice system” since the number of active cases fluctuates from year to year, and the processing times depend on a host of factors, including their degree of complexity. That said, an increase in delays was observed between the months of April and September 2020 both in criminal and penal matters, which coincides with the start of the health crisis, responds the ministry.

In Ontario, the situation seems less rosy. The justice department in that province has spoken of “unprecedented” delays accumulated due to the pandemic in criminal matters and recently injected $ 72 million over two years to tackle the problem.

During the months when courthouses in Quebec are closed, from March to June, Judge Fournier says he had to postpone the trials of 600 civil cases, but he mandated judges to recall all these cases during the summer of 2020. in order to assign them new hearing dates. They have since all been heard or settled out of court, he said.

And on the side of criminal cases, the delay has been caught up, concludes the Bâtonnière du Québec, Me Catherine Claveau, although she underlines that in Quebec, however, everything is “not settled at 100%”. The jury trials caused difficulties, because there were none for four months, health regulations require. But “we put the pedal to it” as soon as it was possible, indicated Justice Fournier.

Thus, a lawsuit brought today will not take longer to go to trial than before the pandemic, concludes the president.

On the other hand, it indicates that new offenses created with the sanitary measures – non-respect of the wearing of the face covering, reunions of large families, shops open during confinement – added to the burden of the judges when the findings were contested in court: this “little boom” caused some delay.

Lawyers who plead before both civil and criminal courts have confirmed this: yes, there are delays before being able to be assigned a judge for a trial, “but it is not necessarily longer”, than before COVID, specifies Me Marie-Claude de Grandpré, civil litigation lawyer at Langlois Avocats in Montreal.

“It’s not bad the same thing”, opined Me Jean-François Noiseux from CDNP Avocats. With the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, “we had fears at the beginning”, but “overall, it went relatively well”, and the virtual hearings gave a good boost, believes the prosecutor who works in professional liability throughout Quebec.

“It’s not late. It is quite effective in setting trial dates, ”added Me François Marchand, from De Grandpré Chait. The lawyer who concentrates his practice in insurance law and professional law however recalls – like his colleagues questioned – that before certain courts, his clients find that they have to wait a very long time before obtaining hearing dates. In Superior Court, for a long-term civil case, it can take up to two years, he says.

Some of his trials were from the lot that were canceled in the spring of 2020, but he confirms that he was contacted quickly and obtained new dates within “normal deadlines”.

In short, the health crisis, despite apprehensions, does not seem to have paralyzed justice.

“The chain of the bike derailed, but we managed to put it back in place quite quickly and to pedal a little faster to catch up with the trip,” explains Judge Rondeau.

How did justice meet the challenge?

First by putting all the cabling of technological devices to contribution to have hearings and trials “in virtual mode”, by using videoconferencing platforms, a system set up in “disaster and panic”, remembers Justice Fournier .

The first fully virtual trial took place at the end of March 2020. This approach, quickly reproduced elsewhere, allowed judges to process more cases in one day. “It made it possible to do more, in less time,” reports the Bâtonnière. With this technology, “the delays we feared have been reduced”.

The virtual system was not perfect, agrees Chief Justice Fournier, but he considers it far superior to having to postpone more trials.

The judges who could not sit during the months of almost total closure of the courthouses have made the management of “pending cases”, adds Chief Justice Rondeau. And on the way back, they worked extra hard and spent a lot of time in the courtroom. Professional training courses for judges were canceled, giving them extra time. “There have been significant efforts by judges and lawyers” who “sat a lot in the recovery,” said the magistrate.

Me de Grandpré underlines, for his part, “another effect of the pandemic”: as the health crisis has led to uncertainty, it seems to have pushed people to settle amicably rather than waiting for a judge, another phenomenon – unquantified – which has helped reduce waiting lists.

In the Superior Court, a program started a few years ago – and which continued during the pandemic – also helped to free up time slots for trials, said Justice Fournier: retired judges were recalled to the bench to conduct out-of-court settlement conferences, which made it possible to “melt down the delays”.

More than a year and a half after the start of the health crisis, the Bâtonnière says she is very proud of all those who make the workings of justice in Quebec work: “We have shown resilience and flexibility. “

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