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COVID-19, The Legal System and Courts

As the spread of COVID-19 (“Coronavirus”) continues across the world, we have already seen significant disruption in all areas of our lives as public health authorities and governments make difficult decisions in response to the crisis.

The legal system is not exempt from this disruption and changes to the operation of the courts and the different stakeholders in the legal system are emerging daily. So far we have seen extraordinary measures such as closing courts to the public, deferring non-urgent matters and looking to alternatives to in-person hearings such as video conferencing.

Here we look at the biggest changes to have happened already and what they mean for our clients.

Ontario Courts & Provincial Organizations

Court of Appeal for Ontario

The Court of Appeal for Ontario suspended all scheduled appeals until at least April 3, 2020. During this period, urgent appeals will be heard based on the written material, or by teleconference or other remote means. Parties on non-urgent appeals scheduled between March 17, 2020 and April 3, 2020 can request their hearing to be heard in writing.

Ontario Court of Justice

In an effort to reduce the number of people attending court, the Ontario Court of Justice stated that as of March 16, 2020, anyone with a Provincial Offences Act, family or criminal court appearance does not need to attend court unless the matter is an in-custody (i.e. accused person is in jail) or urgent criminal or family law matter.

These matters will be adjourned by a court order (called “bench warrant with discretion”) for a period of 10 weeks from the date of your scheduled appearance and applies to cases due to appear up to April 3rd, 2020. This order will require individuals to attend their new court date.

Anyone with matters to be held at the Ontario Court of Justice should check the court website for up-to-date information on the scheduling of criminal and family matters.

Superior Court of Justice

As of March 17, 2020, the Superior Court of Justice suspended all regular operations until further notice, with no tentative return date being given. All sittings of the Ontario Small Claims Court are also suspended.

Late in the evening on March 15, 2020, the Chief Justice for the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, the Honourable Justice Geoffrey Morawetz, issued a Notice to the Profession setting out that the Superior Court of Justice is suspending the hearing of all non-urgent family, civil, and criminal matters effective March 17, 2020, until further notice. 

This unprecedented suspension of court matters applies to any matter that is scheduled to be heard in court before a judge, such as a motion, a trial, a Conference, or an Application.  The court will continue to allow materials to be filed at court, depending on whether this is safe. We are still trying to clarify whether matters that do not require an oral hearing in court, such as motions in writing, will be affected. 

Until further notice, only the following urgent and emergency civil and family matters listed below shall be heard by the Superior Court of Justice.

The following matters related to PUBLIC HEALTH AND SAFETY and COVID-19:

  • applications by the Chief Medical Officer of Health for orders in relation to COVID-19;
  • applications to restrain the contravention or continued contravention of an order made under the Health Protection and Promotion Act;
  • applications to enforce orders requiring the seizure of premises, medications or supplies under the Health Protection and Promotion Act;
  • appeals under subsection 35(16) of the Health Protection and Promotion Act;
  • urgent requests for injunctions related to COVID-19; and
  • urgent Divisional Court appeals and requests for judicial review related to COVID-19.

The following FAMILY AND CHILD PROTECTION matters:

Only urgent family law events as determined by the presiding justice, or events that are required to be heard by statute will be heard during this emergency period, including:

  • requests for urgent relief relating to the safety of a child or parent (e.g., a restraining order, other restrictions on contact between the parties or a party and a child, or exclusive possession of the home);
  • urgent issues that must be determined relating to the well-being of a child including essential medical decisions or issues relating to the wrongful removal or retention of a child;
  • dire issues regarding the parties’ financial circumstances including for example the need for a non-depletion order;
  • in a child protection case, all urgent or statutorily mandated events including the initial hearing after a child has been brought to a place of safety, and any other urgent motions or hearings.

The following CIVIL and COMMERCIAL LIST (Toronto) matters:

  • Urgent and time-sensitive motions and applications in civil and commercial list matters, where immediate and significant financial repercussions may result if there is no judicial hearing.
  • Outstanding warrants issued in relation to a Small Claims Court or Superior Court civil proceeding.
  • Any other matter that the Court deems necessary and appropriate to hear on an urgent basis. The Bar and the public are advised that these matters will be strictly limited.

Landlord and Tenant Board Stops Hearings

As of March 16, 2020, the Landlord and Tenant Board has postponed in-person hearings, which will be rescheduled to a future date. 

In addition, the Sheriff’s office, through the Court Services Division, is no longer enforcing evictions until further notice. 

This does not change the notice periods within the Residential Tenancies Act and the Forms required when dealing with a tenancy. However, in the event the landlord and the tenant cannot come to an agreement and require the intervention of the Board, it will take significantly longer for such a hearing date to be secured. 

Legal Aid Ontario and the Criminal Lawyers’ Association

Legal Aid Ontario announced its lawyers would stop working in Ontario courthouses until further notice due to concerns about COVID-19. The Criminal Lawyers’ Association, while originally placing volunteer defence lawyers across Ontario to help during the pandemic, said that its volunteers would leave the courts to protect their safety and the safety of the public during this time.

Supreme Court of Canada and the Federal Courts

The Supreme Court of Canada suspended multiple hearings until the tentative date of June 2020, with many more expected to be rescheduled due to the virus. The Federal Court of Appeal has adjourned all hearings until April 17, 2020 with the exception of urgent matters that will be heard by teleconference. The Federal Court will remain open for urgent case-related matters, but all non-urgent motions scheduled for between March 16, 2020 and March 27, 2020 have been cancelled. The court will also be closed to the public.

What do these changes mean for my case?

As non-emergency hearings will no longer proceed and the situation continues to evolve leaving your case in a state of limbo, it’s important to adopt a sensible approach and seek resolutions which will avoid or minimize the need to go to court.

With the new measures in place, it’s hoped that courts will be able to resume regular operations in weeks, rather than months but in any case, Epstein & Associates are committed to working with you during these uncertain times. The COVID-19 crisis presents an opportunity for proactive planning and practical thinking. In particular, we would recommend the following steps:

  • Speak to a lawyer about what these changes will mean for your case. We are offering free, thirty minute consultations in the areas of family law, civil litigation, criminal law, estate litigation, wills and estates, and corporate and commercial law. These consultations can proceed by video or teleconference. 
  • Update your Will and Powers of Attorney. If you do not have a Will or a Power of Attorney, please strongly consider getting one. These will become increasingly important as more individuals become ill; are stranded overseas; or have to make decisions from quarantine. 
  • Go virtual. The Law Society has already changed their interpretation of the Commissioners of Affidavits Act to allow signatures to be witnessed by a commissioner via video. This will significantly reduce the need for in-person meetings. More changes are being announced daily that will make the practice of law more efficient and stream-lined going forward. 

Contact Us

We understand that these are unprecedented and confusing times. Reach out to our team to schedule a call and get up-to-date advice on your particular situation.