Saskatchewan lawyers are concerned about the growing backlog of cases in court because of reduced court services during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Court cases for non-custody accused and docket proceedings at circuit court locations are adjourned until after May 31. Bail hearings and sentencing for in-custody accused are continuing by telephone and video-conferencing at the 13 permanent court locations that remain open.
“I think in short we are concerned about a backlog,” said Christine Hansen-Chad, a Partner at OWZW Lawyers and president of the Saskatchewan Trial Lawyers Association.
“Certainly, there are matters that would ordinarily be before the court that aren’t being heard right now,” she said during a telephone interview April 23.
Hansen-Chad said some clients and/or lawyers are somewhat hesitant to bring some matters before the court.
“They may be pressing but not necessarily meet the urgent test before the court.”
Hansen-Chad said, however, the court has been collaborating with organizations such as the STLA to address issues.
“There have been calls and opportunities for us to provide comments and suggestions and express those concerns,” she said. “The court so far has been really receptive to hearing that feedback and having a very collaborative approach so I’m hopeful that as they proceed with their plan on moving to the next phase of where they are going to be, they will have taken into consideration those concerns and certainly the backlog I think is foremost in their mind.
“I’ve been very impressed with how the courts have been so receptive to comments from the bar through this process and really willing to engage with us,” she added. “That’s been really pleasant to see.”
In 2016 the Supreme Court ruled that cases must be heard within a certain time frame. A ruling called Jordan’s Decision stipulates provincial cases must be heard within 18 months after charges are laid.
Hansen-Chad said this time frame is a concern.
“I know the court is aware of that and it has been discussed and foremost in their mind from the very beginning so I have nothing but faith they will take that into consideration as matters proceed going forward,” she said, adding that many criminal matters are still proceeding during the pandemic.
Noel Busse, Director of Communications for Saskatchewan Justice, said they are aware of the backlog.
“Public Prosecutions is aware of the backlog that is being created as a result of COVID-19, and is working with its partners in the courts to ensure that this backlog can be successfully managed when normal court operations resume,” said Busse in an email statement April 23.
Public Prosecutions is working on a plan to address the potential impact of the restrictions COVID-19 has placed on its operations.
“This includes working with partners across the justice system to develop plans and strategies to successfully manage the workload that will be created when normal operations begin to resume," said Busse.
Hansen-Chad says the STLA expects to receive more direction from the court soon.
“I look forward to that and I am hopeful they will be discussing how they will increase the number of matters and type of matters before the court.
“I think we have a very committed group of lawyers, court staff, judges and individuals who work in the justice system who want to make sure we are providing the best services we can for clients out there,” she added. “I think there will be some adjustment to help people ensure they are having their matters heard as timely as possible.”
Court mediation services continue and are used when possible.
“They have a very important role in our justice system,” said Hansen-Chad. “It’s been great to see how they have adapted to this process but there are certain matters that require the guidance and knowledge of the court so there are certain matters that just still need the court. Our court still serves an important role so mediation services are important but they don’t replace the role of the court.”
The courts have used telephone and CCTV for some proceedings and their use may increase post-COVID-19. In late March, Chief Judge J.A. Plemel gave Crown and defense counsel blanket permission to appear by telephone on all matters except trials and preliminary hearings until further notice.
“The court has been for years looking at access to justice issues and increasing access to justice so that has always been part of their plan,” said Hansen-Chad. “For sure this pandemic will continue to help them move in that direction to continue increasing access to justice wherever possible, especially in remote areas.”
Busse said the ministry is working with the courts on how to potentially enhance the use of technology going forward.
During the pandemic, access to provincial court houses across the province is restricted to only counsel, litigants, the accused, witnesses, support workers, treatment court workers and the media. Plemel said the court managers and deputy sheriffs will exercise their discretion to allow other members of the public if they consider their entry crucial.
Updated 11:33 a.m., April 23, 2020