Chilliwack Law Courts. (Chilliwack Progress file)

OPINION: Self-reflection forced by pandemic could improve B.C. justice

Reopening the courts bit by bit is illustrating the good, the bad, and what needs to change

No longer can you stroll through the front door of the Chilliwack Law Courts these days, walk through the lobby, up the stairs, wander around, and count neck tattoos or expensive shoes, depending on where your gaze takes you.

Now, a member of the BC Sheriff Service greets you in the lobby (a lobby that pre-pandemic was empty unless a gangster was in court prompting the use of metal detectors) to ask you if you have any symptoms, if you have been near anyone with COVID-19, or been to the U.S. Then, hand sanitizer, arrows on the floor, ropes in the hallway, and red tape blocking off 80 per cent of the seats in courtrooms.

The issue of delays is a perennial problem in B.C.’s justice system, but now it’s a pandemic problem, too.

Long criticized for its opacity by those of us who try to write about criminal proceedings, the view of justice in B.C. is even murkier these days because of the pandemic. Still, I am actually hopeful the court system will come through this pandemic better than it was before.

Really I do, hear me out.

After decades of business-as-usual, with only minor nudges asking for more transparency or access, little was gained. It’s taken a decade of me closely following the courts to get to know many of those involved, and to understand the Court Services Online system, with its sparse amount of information.

• READ MORE: COLUMN: Fraser Valley defence lawyers say COVID-19 court delays need to end

• READ MORE: COVID-19: B.C. supreme and provincial courts suspend regular operations

But people in positions of power are aware that the system is not open enough. Taking it all away for a period of time because of COVID-19, and slowly handing it back, piece by piece, is giving those involved a glimpse at exactly what they were providing and, again, with my glass half full, I believe they will see what they were not providing.

As I pondered this Tuesday, lo and behold, a press release from the provincial government announced the appointment of six new provincial court judges, three of whom are retired judges reappointed to the bench. These are senior judges that Attorney General David Eby says have agreed to return to service to help reduce backlogs.

“These formerly retired judges returning to serve the public will bring with them extensive experience to support newer judges and move quickly through the caseload that has accumulated as a result of pandemic-related adjournments,” Eby said.

One huge and regular cluster of people at the courthouse, pre-pandemic, was those fighting motor vehicle violations. On certain days, those were held in courtroom 200, which is about the size of a child’s bedroom, and would be jammed with people lining the walls, cops and those fighting tickets. As of July 13, the provincial court began hearing some of those matters at locations outside of the provincial courthouses, such as at university campuses and secondary schools throughout B.C.

As for the BC Supreme Court, on July 17 it made notice that criminal jury trials would resume as of Sept. 8. Jury selection, on the other hand, will get much more complicated given the need to choose 12 (14 actually) people out of what is usually a jampacked courthouse of hundreds.

They do, however, have a plan involving staggered times, after hours interviews, possible using locations outside of the courthouse.

Through all of this, from court clerks to sheriffs to lawyers to judges to janitors, everyone involved in the criminal justice system is reassessing how they do their job, how it can be done according to pandemic guidelines, and analysis can only improve things on the other side of this.

The famous dictum from Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living” doesn’t quite apply here, but I say the closely examined workplace can only get better.

Examination, self-reflection, and improvement are all on the way to our criminal justice system.

Some may say it’s pollyannish of me to assume things will become simpler and/or more transparent, but it is the cynic in me who sees how difficult the system was to negotiate before the pandemic so, well, it can’t get worse.

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