The Ontario Superior Court of Justice suspended court operations in mid-March of 2020 as a measure to curb the spread of COVID-19 transmission. This de-facto lead to the suspension of jury trials and jury selection in civil and criminal cases.
By Order, all criminal matters scheduled for any type of appearance between March 17, 2020, and June 1, 2020, were adjourned. All civil matters scheduled to be heard on or after March 17, 2020, were adjourned with no fixed return dates. The effect of those orders was to suspend most jury proceedings.
Given the on-going public health situation at the time of this post in August of 2020, the Ontario Superior Court of Justice has not recommenced criminal or civil jury selection or jury trials, and is unlikely to do so until September of 2020, at the earliest.
The legal profession including Judges, Lawyers, and the Courts were quick to adapt to technology. Zoom and other video-conferencing, and teleconferencing options were used to keep the legal process moving and avoid delays.
A look at the Future of Trials in Ontario
Courts continue to limit in-person attendances, with proceedings including pre-trials, trials being conducted via Zoom. In a bid to make the virtual court process seamless, Ontario Courts have adapted document sharing platforms like CaseLines.
COVID-19 changes lead us to wonder if this is possibly the end of Jury Trials. It is worth comparing COVID-19 changes to, Rule 76 of the Rules of Civil Procedure (“Rule 76”) changes which came into effect on January 1, 2020, which eliminated jury trials in actions proceeding under Simplified Procedure.
The role of the jury has been to provide the right to a fair trial before an impartial tribunal, this includes an impartial jury. Jury verdicts, representing a cross-section of Canadian society, are meant to symbolize that the community has spoken. Lawyers can also “challenge for cause”, which involves a judge asking potential jurors pre-approved questions, including whether they may have a bias in the case.
After all of the evidence has been called and the lawyers have presented their arguments, the judge instructs the jury on the law and advises them on what must be taken into account when making their decision. The jurors then proceed to discuss the case amongst themselves, and must come to a unanimous agreement on the verdict. After the trial, the jurors are not allowed to divulge the discussions that took place in the jury room.
The future of jury trials as we have come to know and rely on, remains changed if trials are conducted via Zoom, and bias or partiality cannot be identified from behind a computer screen.
The Ontario government has undertaken a number of consultations to improve civil legislation, regulations, and processes, since the closure of courts due to COVID-19 in mid-March.
It remains to be seen, what the future of trials in Ontario will be.
The team at JEWELL RADIMISIS JORGE LLPencourages everyone to stay safe during these unprecedented times.