VIRTUAL HEARINGS AND SERVICES: TOOLS AND RESOURCES FOR COURT USERS AND PERSONNEL
A Statement from the Action Committee
Our Committee exists to support Canada’s courts as they work to protect the health and safety of all court users in the COVID-19 context while upholding the fundamental values of our justice system. These mutually sustaining commitments guide all of our efforts.
CONTEXT AND SCOPE
In an effort to promote open and safe access to court hearings and services for justice participants, the media and the public in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, courts across Canada have shifted towards virtual hearings and service delivery. To facilitate this transition, courts and other justice stakeholders have implemented a series of policy and practical tools for court users and personnel, and for public and media observers.
This reference document seeks to consolidate information on these existing tools to assist courts and justice stakeholders in implementing virtual processes effectively within court operations throughout and beyond the pandemic. To achieve this, the document first describes the types of tools developed for this purpose, then lists specific resources and reference tools originating from different courts and justice stakeholders.
This document does not presuppose whether conducting virtual hearings or providing virtual services is preferable to in-person in any given situation; rather, it recognizes that, when feasible and used appropriately, virtual hearings and services can complement in-person proceedings and services to achieve better access to justice for a wider diversity of persons, including but not only in times of public emergency. Individual courts are best placed to make these determinations based on their operational and technical capacity as well as the needs of their local community.
TYPES OF TOOLS DEVELOPED ON VIRTUAL HEARINGS AND COURT SERVICES
To support court users and personnel in adapting existing court processes to evolving public health and technological realities, and in implementing virtual technology more permanently in court operations moving forward, courts and court administrators may wish to consider the following complementary tools as part of an overall strategy to promote effective access to virtual hearings and court services, as required by the circumstances.
1. COVID-19 Notices and Practice Directions
Throughout the pandemic, courts have issued notices and practice directions to inform legal professionals, the media and the public about the current status of court operations. These include information on current health and safety measures and any access restrictions in court facilities; types of proceedings that are being heard or adjourned, and any required action by counsel or self-represented parties; types of proceedings that are occurring remotely or virtually, and applicable procedures; whether hearings are open to the media and the public, and how to gain access; authorized or expected use of electronic filing of documents, and applicable procedures; and the suspension or resumption of statutory or regulatory timeframes that apply to certain types of proceedings.
To ensure the most up-to-date information is easily accessible to all court users, some best practices identified include displaying the latest notices and practice directions as an automatic pop-up or prominently on the main page of the courts’ website; disseminating new notices and practice directions to legal associations and media contacts; and consolidating notices and practice directions or clearly indicating which ones are in effect, or have been repealed or replaced.
2. Electronic resource portals
Portals housed on several court and legal association websites serve as hubs for providing overview information and links to relevant resources for legal professionals, the media and the public on new or revised court procedures in light of the pandemic. Examples include thematic portals on COVID-19, virtual courtrooms, public and media access, and e-filing.
3. User guides and practice tips for virtual hearings
With the growing use of virtual platforms to conduct hearings, user guides and practice tips have been developed for both hearing participants and public and media observers.
Common logistical tips for participants and observers include technical requirements and recommendations for the use of specific platforms (e.g. hardware and software); step-by-step procedures and screenshots to help install and connect to the platform; when and how to use functionalities such as microphones, cameras and screen sharing; frequently asked questions; troubleshooting tips; and what to do in the event of technical difficulties during a hearing.
Common practice tips for hearing participants include advance preparation and test runs; preparing litigants and witnesses; considerations related to self-represented litigants; addressing certain issues in advance with the judge or registrar; hearing etiquette and decorum; management of documents during a hearing; screen tips; and advocacy tips in virtual settings.
Common policy considerations for public and media observers focus largely on rules and methods of access to hearings, including restrictions on the use of electronic devices, recording and broadcasting of proceedings, or publication bans.
4. Policies on public and media access to virtual hearings and on the use of electronic devices in the courtroom
Policies, protocols or guidelines on public and media access to hearings and on the use of electronic devices in the courtroom that were in place before the pandemic have continued to apply to virtual hearings. In addition, many courts have now clarified methods and rules of access to virtual hearings for the public and media, in an effort to balance open access with the privacy and safety of hearing participants. Additional safeguards implemented in many jurisdictions include advance registration; personalized and password-protected links; and acknowledgments or undertakings from participants and observers not to record or broadcast proceedings.
5. Screening tools for privacy, security and confidentiality issues
Since it is more difficult for courts to monitor access and conduct of participants and observers in virtual hearings, some courts have implemented screening protocols or standardized forms to identify any privacy, security or confidentiality issues in advance. This enables courts to implement additional safeguards or make special orders as required.
6. Hearing lists
Hearing lists that were often already distributed electronically on court websites and disseminated directly to lawyers and accredited media were adapted and expanded in response to the pandemic to facilitate open access to hearings. Additional information has been included, such as the mode of hearing (e.g. in person, by phone or by video) and how to access a specific hearing (e.g., by registering in advance or through a pre-existing link).
7. E-filing systems and related practice tools
At the start of the pandemic, several courts were forced to rely on email to enable counsel and self-represented litigants to file documents remotely, which created a strain on both electronic systems and court personnel. Some courts also implemented service or mail hubs for safe drop-off of documents in person without the need to access court facilities, though court personnel still needed to process documents by hand.
Many courts have now implemented e-filing systems that allow counsel and self-represented litigants to file a variety of documents virtually and that automate various stages of processing, which enhances efficiencies and reduces processing times. E-filing platforms can vary from one jurisdiction to the next, and may include functionalities such as web filing of court forms or evidentiary documents, or document-sharing between court officials and parties. Some jurisdictions have also implemented, or are considering, electronic case management systems.
To facilitate the use of these new systems, courts have also developed e-filing resources such as portals, notices or practice guides.
8. Training sessions and practical demonstrations
To promote awareness, buy-in and effective use of new technologies such as virtual hearing platforms and e-filing systems, many courts have offered virtual training sessions, open house sessions or practical demonstrations to legal professionals and other relevant stakeholders.
9. Stakeholder consultation and collaboration
To promote an effective and inclusive shift to virtual hearings and service delivery, various courts have engaged in ongoing consultations with affected stakeholders, including legal professionals and accredited media. In some cases, this has occurred through newly created committees and working groups or ad hoc discussions, while in other cases courts were able to build upon pre-existing forums such as Bench and Bar Liaison Committees or recurring multi-stakeholder conferences to address current challenges and identify workable solutions.
ANNEX: RESOURCES AND REFERENCE TOOLS ON VIRTUAL HEARINGS AND COURT SERVICES
The external resources listed below are meant to provide a detailed overview of existing tools to assist courts across Canada in promoting virtual access to hearings and court services both during and beyond the pandemic. However, this list is not necessarily exhaustive. Resources are listed in the official language(s) in which they are available, and may change frequently as courts and other stakeholders update them in response to evolving situations and lessons learned.
COVID-19 WEBPAGES / RESOURCE PORTALS
As of September 2021
Newfoundland and Labrador
Council of Canadian Administrative Tribunals
USER GUIDES FOR VIRTUAL PLATFORMS
Ontario Court of Justice – Zoom User Guide for Remote HearingsGuide d’utilisation Zoom pour les audiences virtuelles
Provincial Court of British Columbia – Virtual Proceedings
· Canadian Bar Association (British Columbia Branch) – Using MS Teams in Court Proceedings
· Canadian Bar Association (British Columbia Branch) – Using MS Teams in Court Proceedings via Telephone
· Alberta Court of Appeal – Connecting and Attending an Electronic Hearing Guide – For Counsel and Self-Represented Litigants
· Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench – Remote Hearing Protocol & Troubleshooting – Instructions and Etiquette Guide
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