Changing court landscape in the wake of Omicron
By Kirsten McMahon
Across the province, courts have either gone virtual, been delayed or stopped indefinitely over the past two years, causing a “huge access to justice problem that needs to be addressed,” says Rhino Legal Finance President Larry Herscu.
Earlier this year, Alberta courts postponed some in-person cases and limited attendance at courthouses by adjourning various criminal, civil and family matters in response to the Omicron variant and the “ongoing risk” to justice system participants.
As the Omicron wave subsides, Alberta has entered Step 2 — removing capacity, screening and gathering limits and eliminating mask mandates in most settings. As the Edmonton Journal reports, Alberta courts have been operating with COVID restrictions since March 2020, with limited seating capacity and rules for physical distancing. However, some courtrooms have been equipped for remote conferencing, and “off-site locations are being used for jury trials and selections,” the article states.
Court is finally back in session after two years of delay and closures, although safety measures will remain in place. But, of course, the backlog has worsened, and questions remain about moving forward.
“The courts have limped along since then with online appearances and filings, largely administrative changes that had been encouraged by the legal community for years,” reports the Edmonton Journal.
Herscu says there have been positive changes, and some of Alberta’s courts, in particular, have been at the forefront, helping move cases forward and increasing access to justice.
“At the start of the pandemic, the Alberta Court of Appeal quickly allowed lawyers and self-represented litigants to access their entire court files electronically and conduct remote hearings,” he says. “Of course, in-person appearances at trials and appeals have returned, but it’s so important to keep some of these crucial administrative changes.”
For example, at the Court of Appeal, parties could get copies of their case materials and retrieve other information about their appeals, “including the full text of all filed documents, deadlines, hearing dates, outcomes and more.”
Herscu, who sees first-hand the impact court delays have on personal injury plaintiffs and their counsel, says it’s imperative to adapt to catch up on the number of cases adjourned throughout the pandemic. A big part of Rhino’s business is offering financial support to those who have been hurt in an accident to help them pay bills while their lawyer fights for a fair settlement.
“It’s great to see new technology usurping paper documents and unnecessary court appearances,” he says. “I hope the bench and bar can keep that momentum going and that these successful measures and projects are implemented for the long term,” he says. “Dealing with the backlog is of great benefit to plaintiffs who have long faced delays and a denial of access to justice.”
“For a plaintiff who is trying to resolve a dispute and is unable to work due to their injury, delays of this degree can be demoralizing and could force a claimant to settle prematurely,” he says.
Rhino Legal Finance is a holding company that operates as a private credit manager. As a Canadian litigation financing firm, it services the legal sector, including its clients and the service providers involved in their cases.