Removing remote court proceedings is a step backwards
Not making them the default for matters such as trial management and case-planning conferences undermines access to justice.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, our courts implemented measures allowing for remote appearances. In particular, our BC Supreme Court allowed for appearances to take place remotely, via telephone or video conference by default, when involving chambers applications estimated to take two hours or less, trial management and case-planning conferences. The court even heard trials remotely, as well as more routine hearings. During this time, parties could apply to the court to appear in person.
These changes had several positive impacts. First, they increased access to justice by allowing lawyers to represent clients far from their immediate locality. In other words, these clients benefited by having greater choice of legal representatives, as they could seek assistance from lawyers based on their expertise rather than mere physical proximity.
Second, by allowing appearances to proceed remotely by default, particularly routine and relatively short court proceedings such as trial management and case-planning conferences, it ensured that only matters that needed to be in person did take place in person. This saved time (and legal fees) that would have been spent on items that did not advance clients' matters such as clients, lawyers and witnesses traveling to and from the courthouse, and any added time lost waiting for matters to be called.
Third, when appearing remotely, counsel could more succinctly present their legal arguments by clicking between bookmarks in PDFs of document sets, rather than determining which binder contained the document, turning to the appropriate tab, and thumbing through the pages. Digital documents also provided certainty that everyone in attendance was viewing the same document by way of screensharing, and allowed counsel (or the judge) to take more thorough and later comprehensible typed notes.
Fourth, remote hearings made it easier for lawyers, especially those with family or other obligations, to stay active in the profession, rather than forcing them to choose between their personal and professional lives. Parents who would otherwise have to arrange for childcare to spend time with their child(ren) before and after a court appearance only needed to click the link provided by the court to attend the appearance online for the 0.5-2 hours the actual hearing takes. The same is true for lawyers caring for aging parents or loved ones recovering from a medical procedure.
Remote appearances helped create a more equal playing field for lawyers trying to advance in their careers. In particular, parents with newborn children (especially women) could return to their practice sooner as they could work while tending to their newborn, rather than being forced to choose between caregiving and working.
Similarly, appearing remotely helps individuals who suffer from physical or mental difficulties bypass certain challenges they would face to participate in court hearings in person.
Lastly, remote appearances enabled lawyers to work from and for more distant and underserved communities, since there was no obligation to be within commuting distance of a courthouse.
By resuming in-person hearings as the default mode for even routine matters such as trial management and case-planning conferences and uncontested chambers applications (Covid-19 Notice # 50), our court is giving up on the progress we were forced to make during the past three years. Notably, parties must now apply to appear remotely even where both sides consent to appearing via video or teleconference.
Unfortunately, the Law Society of British Columbia is similarly no longer allowing the COVID-19 procedure for remote verification of clients' identification, where lawyers could receive a scan of the client's photo ID and verify their identity via videoconferencing. This change to ID verification will likely have similar effects on access to justice.
In contrast to the direction taken by the BC Supreme Court, the BC Court of Appeal and Provincial Court both continue to embrace remote appearances as the default for many proceedings.
The BC Court of Appeal allows parties to file a "request to appear remotely" for appeals and chambers, and automatically allows parties to appear by Zoom in chambers.
Similarly, our Provincial Court continues to use video conferencing on Microsoft Teams as the default for settlement conferences and trial conferences.
As it aptly noted, "Remote attendance options provide the flexibility to support greater access to justice, including for those living in remote communities, vulnerable people served by the Court, and those who test positive for COVID-19 and need to stay home pursuant to the BCCDC guidelines."