Coronavirus: Manitoba courts prepared for backlog, experimenting with new technology

Manitoba’s court system has made several changes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, including adjourning several cases and limiting access to the courthouse, but the Chief Justice and Chief Judge say they are doing their best to overcome the obstacles.

Many less urgent cases have been adjourned and jury trials have been cancelled until the end of June.

Chief Justice Glenn D. Joyal said the Court of Queen’s Bench is prioritizing cases in areas including family law, child protection, criminal law and civil litigation.

“In the area of child protection, we obviously want to ensure to the extent that we can we prioritize those motions and applications that need to be prioritized.”

Chief Justice Joyal said he’s also bracing for possible new disputes that may arise as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and have to be dealt with in a timely manner.

“You may have in some situations a government in good faith passing an important piece of legislation, but that legislation is nonetheless challenged because of the implications for what somebody, a litigate, might think are potential compromises to his or her or other civil liberties,” Chief Justice Joyal said.

The Provincial Court is operating similar to the Court of Queen’s Bench, where non-urgent matters have been adjourned.

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Chief Judge Margaret Wiebe said the urgent cases that are being heard, which include in custody cases and protection orders, are utilizing technology to practice physical distancing.

“We have gone to great lengths to focus on having hearings by video and by telephone appearances,” she said.

“Many counsel are not coming to the courthouse. We are having clerks text them before their matter comes up so that they do know their matter is appearing; they can call into telephone lines which have been put into each of the courtrooms.

“We are focusing on video, we are not transporting people unless it’s absolutely necessary.”

Given the number of matters that have been adjourned, Chief Judge Wiebe estimates it could take up to a year and a half for the Provincial Court to catch up once the pandemic is over.

“I think it’s going to be difficult for us to catch up with the volume, particularly that we have in this court, any sooner than 18 months or so,” she said.

“That is a guess; maybe we can do it faster.”

Chief Justice Joyal is aiming to catch up in the summer months, if the spread of COVID-19 levels off in Manitoba by then.

Cases can also be thrown out if a judge finds the defendant’s constitutional right to a timely trial had been violated under the Jordan decision.

“I can’t telegraph or anticipate what court rulings will be,” Chief Justice Joyal said. “The Jordan case also, I think, allows for contextualization of situations and circumstances and this is a circumstance like no other.”

Going forward, Chief Justice Joyal is hoping to gain valuable lessons from this experience which has forced unprecedented changes on the court system. He said the court system could carry on with some of the technology introduced during the pandemic, while balancing public access.

“We’re learning in different areas how we might not only improve the system in good times, but how we can maybe anticipate and guard against inconvenience in bad times.”

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