The Chilliwack Cultural Centre on Sept. 30, 2020, the main stage of which was used for a BC Supreme Court jury trial to maintain proper distancing for pandemic protocols. (Paul Henderson/ The Progress)

OPINION: The theatre of court proceedings on stage at the Chilliwack Cultural Centre

BC Supreme Court jury trial held on main stage this week to maintain pandemic distancing protocols

Drama unfolded on the stage of the Chilliwack Cultural Centre this week, but critics said the story was plodding, the dialogue uninspiring.

Truth might be stranger than fiction, but truth is also usually a lot more boring than fiction. And what was under the spotlights on the main stage when I stopped in on Tuesday was day six of a BC Supreme Court jury trial.

• RELATED: Defence in Fraser Valley chicken abuse cases asks BC Supreme Court to drop the charges

Gary Tombs is on trial for sexual assault in connection with an alleged offence from Nov. 25, 2017 near Mission.

Why the heck at the cultural centre? It’s a pandemic.

These are strange times, and I was at the Chilliwack Law Courts on Sept. 28 for an application by defendants in a high-profile chicken abuse case. Courtroom 201 is the largest room in the building, used for BC Supreme Court jury trials with space for lawyers, witnesses, sheriffs, a plexiglass-enclosed prisoner’s box, and a 48-seat gallery.

I walked into the courtroom and sat in the second last of the six available seats in the gallery (the other 42 taped off). Along with me was: a representative of Mercy For Animals; one of the accused, Dwayne Dueck; an employee; and News1130 reporter Kelvin Gawley. Five of us.

Up front, there was Justice Thomas Crabtree, the court clerk, one sheriff, and six lawyers.

• READ MORE: Defence in Fraser Valley chicken abuse cases asks BC Supreme Court to drop the charges

Count ’em up that’s 14. But, wait, the sign on the door said no more than 11. Thus began an hour of consternation and confusion between the judge, Crown, the clerk, the sheriff, discussing who should be there, who was who, who was where, how close they were to each other, masks, microphones, and the fact that the expert witnesses were yet to be called. Oh man, even more people?

But the elephant in the room, which Justice Crabtree brought up, was that this will (eventually) be a jury trial. Courtroom 201 can’t possibly accommodate that with these protocols.

Only then did I hear about the jury trial being held at the Chilliwack Cultural Centre. A curious man, I zipped over to see. After going through pandemic courthouse protocols with a sheriff inside the doors of the cultural centre, I signed in, walked passed the concession where one gets an intermission glass of wine, and into door 4.

And there, in the 580-seat auditorium, I was the only person. Every other row was closed, four out of every five seats in open rows closed. Most curtains removed, wings wide open. The judge was seated on an elevated platform at the back. Clerk, defence, Crown, and Mr. Tombs (wearing a face shield), were all at tables spaced well apart centre stage.

And there, drifting into stage left, was the jury of 12, three rows of four.

My interest was to see a BC Supreme Court trial take place on a theatre stage. If COVID-19 surrealism wasn’t enough in every other aspect of life, jurisprudence on a theatre stage has to be seen as downright Shakespearean, at worst, right?

(“To be guilty or not to be guilty, that is the question.”)

This is, of course, nothing new. This week an RCMP officer’s manslaughter case was scheduled to start at Nelson’s Capitol Theatre.

• READ MORE: The trial must go on: Nelson’s Capitol Theatre to host Supreme Court case

Court hearings have been held at Evergreen Hall in Chilliwack in the past. And any judge who has travelled to smaller communities has stories of holding court under basketball nets in school gymnasiums.

I talked to a seasoned lawyer who recounted his time in a small community in The Congo where court was being held outside on plastic chairs as vehicles drove by.

A court is a court is a court if those in charge say it’s a court.

Access to those courts by the media as a proxy for the public, however, is my primary concern. In Abbotsford and New Westminster and Vancouver, there are serious issues with access because of COVID protocols.

In Chilliwack, I am friendly with many of those involved, some sheriffs, Crown counsel, even defence lawyers, and most understand the need for public access to courtrooms.

Part of me is actually hopeful that in the long run, the fallout will be more access to the court system rather than less for those who want to see what goes on. I am hopeful that this pandemic will illustrate to those in charge that while they often brag that the system is aspirationally transparent, this situation will put a spotlight on the reality of just how tragically opaque it really is.

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