COVID-19 and the Ontario Legal System: Update

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COVID-19 and the Ontario Legal System: Update
COVID-19 impacts on the Ontario legal system have caused courts to pivot to electronic means. Learn more about how courts are now operating.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created unique challenges for many sectors of society. For the legal system, which relies heavily on an ancient tradition, and which moves slowly even in ordinary times, the implementation of provincial COVID regulations was a formidable obstacle to operation. However, challenges often lead to innovation, and Ontario’s court system has introduced a number of new measures designed to keep the wheels of justice turning during this difficult era. In fact, once courts are able to convene in person, many of the electronic systems put into place will keep operating, allowing Ontario courts to operate more quickly and smoothly than ever before. In May, Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey stated, “Experience gained during COVID-19 underscores the urgent need to invest in technology, modernize processes and expand access to justice across the province, including in rural and remote regions. Our justice partners have joined us in acknowledging we must continue to press forward boldly toward a more accessible, responsive and resilient system that will continue to evolve long after the pandemic is over. The needs of the justice sector have changed and there is broad consensus we cannot go back to the way things were done before the public health emergency.”


Online Innovations

“Pivot” has emerged as a buzzword for businesses and organizations during the pandemic. It refers to the ability of enterprises to move quickly in another direction in order to keep operating. The Ontario Superior Court, which hears personal injury matters, has demonstrated the ability to pivot toward using online platforms and remote proceedings in order to move cases through the justice system.


One of the major changes has been the introduction of CaseLines, a cloud-based document sharing and e-hearing platform, through which parties and their counsel can share court documents. In August, the Superior Court began a CaseLines pilot project, and it is now in general use. CaseLines is a useful tool, since it has a user-friendly interface that’s easy to learn and use. CaseLines allows materials of any size or file format to be uploaded; users can make notes and highlight documents privately, and terms can be searched in all uploaded documents. CaseLines allows parties to navigate documents easily and to direct opposing counsel or the court to a specific section quickly. Users have access to the uploaded materials at any time. CaseLines has more than 40,000 legal users worldwide and is used daily in 25 countries. It is likely that the use of CaseLines will continue, since it is simple to use, increases efficiency, and has proven to be secure.


During the same period as CaseLines came into play, Ontario Courts began expanding the Justice Services Online platform, which allows parties and their counsel to file more than four hundred kinds of civil and family court documents electronically. Some other documents may now be filed via email. In addition, use of the court case lookup online tool, which makes it easier for individuals to search for information on cases, is in wider use, and the online jury pre-screening and check-in tool, which enables potential jurors to avoid spending more time in the courthouse prior to jury selection, was expanded.



Remote Proceedings


During the initial lockdown in the spring, access to physical courts was limited, and the number of remote court hearings increased. When the lockdown regulations relaxed, certain proceedings were allowed to take place in courtrooms. Now that we are back to observing more stringent regulations, remote proceedings will be necessary for most cases. The Chief Justice has advised that effective December 29, 2020, all non-jury matters should proceed virtually unless an in-person hearing is absolutely necessary. No more than ten people can be present in any courtroom, and litigants must arrive at least thirty minutes early to undergo screening. No new jury selection will happen during the lockdown, but jury cases already in progress may continue at the discretion of the judge.


As of January 1, 2021, all case conferences are to be held by telephone conference unless otherwise specified by the court. Other matters, including unopposed motions and applications, opposed short motions and applications, long motions and applications, requests for chamber appointments and case conferences, class action case management conferences, and pre-certification, certification, and post-certification motions may be heard remotely. Zoom platform conferencing will be used for some remote proceedings. The Court has requested that parties abide by its Best Practices and Etiquette for Remote Hearings.


If you have any questions about a court matter, consult with your lawyer. Personal injury cases continue to be heard during the pandemic, so if you have been injured in a motor vehicle accident, slip-and-fall, or other incident where another party was at fault, contact a personal injury law firm today.