Group of Ontario lawyers petitions courts to keep proceedings virtual
The pandemic forced millions of court proceeding to go virtual over the past two years, a necessity in order to keep the wheels of justice moving.
Now, a group of family lawyers in Ontario wants virtual hearings to be the norm.
More than 1,000 lawyers have signed a petition to make all court appearances “presumptively virtual unless parties and their counsel agree otherwise.”
“This technology allows people to access the justice system easily from home,” Russell Alexander, a lawyer who supports this idea, told CTV News.
The lawyers argue that remote court saves them time, which reduces their clients’ bills, while improving access to justice for those with disabilities or other barriers to in-person meetings.
“Virtual has been one of the very few advantages we have gained from this pandemic, so let's not go backwards,” Nafisa Nazarali, another lawyer backing the idea, said.
As COVID-19 restrictions in courthouses have started to lift across the country, many judges are left to decide on a case-by-case basis if proceedings are held in-person, remote or hybrid.
But while some lawyers are championing remote court, others say we shouldn’t ignore the drawbacks.
Criminal defence lawyer Michael Spratt saidwhile there are merits to remote court appearances, some lower-income clients will be at a disadvantage if virtual becomes the default setting.
“Insisting on virtual proceedings in those cases could essentially [emphasize] the already gross disparity between the haves and the have nots in the justice system,” Spratt said.
“Balance is the exact word that we need to use.”
The well-known fact that technology is imperfect can also slow down court proceedings.
Currently, major backlogs at Ontario’s Landlord Tenant Board means disputes can be stretched out for months or even years due to the delays in getting a hearing.
When they do happen, these hearings are being held virtually, but they can worsen communication issues between two parties that already did not agree, with both tenants and landlords sometimes using the excuse of technological issues to avoid answering questions or participating fully in the hearing.
And some worry that the lack of face-to-face interaction might affect the outcome of hearings.
Renter Lea Donaldson recently fought off an eviction. But she’s worried that if she did end up having to battle her landlord in court, it would be over a computer, hampering her ability to communicate.
“I wouldn't be able to present myself as well as I could in person,” Donaldson said.
Even as courtrooms wrestle with which legal matters should be handled remotely, provinces are making investments.
Ontario, for example, has promised $65 million dollars to upgrade videoconferencing technology and training.