COVID-19: The New Courtroom

June 16, 2020

Yesterday in Port Hawkesbury, we took part in what we were told was the first Provincial Court trial to proceed since the COVID-19 shut down courts in Nova Scotia.

In the middle of the March Courts in Nova Scotia began adjourning matters for the months of March, April and May, in hopes of being able to return to normal come June.  Unfortunately, as the pandemic unfolded it became clear the return to "normal" would not come soon enough for the criminal justice system and in May the Courts decided to hold trials for people in custody starting in June. This was a  a balancing act between public health and a person being incarcerated for longer than is necessary.

The Court system, a recovery committee made up of members of the bar and judiciary, and the Public Prosecution Service all worked with Dr. Strang to develop a plan to ensure that matters could proceed safely.

We quickly learned that these changes were going to be much more than bringing your own bottle of water.

Tj McKeough sitting in the Courtroom at the first Provincial Court trial held in Nova Scotia since the Courts closed mid-March.
The changes to the Court process were evident before we even stepped foot in the Courthouse. We had multiple telephone pretrial conferences where the Court advised counsel of their plan to conduct the trial. Questions never before asked were now the focus. The Judge even had to know who was going to be in the Courtroom and exactly where they are going to sit.

On the day of the trial, we entered the Courthouse and were immediately met by a sheriff holding a spray bottle of hand sanitizer who instructed us to hold out our hands.  We then proceeded 100 feet through the lobby, where we entered the Courtroom and were met by a second sheriff with a spray bottle of hand sanitizer.  We were required to wear masks and standing six feet apart in the Courtroom; but we were not required to wear masks in common areas.

The Port Hawkesbury Provincial Courtroom is large, with an 80 person capacity in the gallery. Due to the new regulations, only eight individuals or eight bubbled couples were permitted into the gallery.  Every seating space marked with a green tab.  The same green tab marked the center of each counsel table, which historically sat two lawyers but now would only accommodate one. On each counsel table was a bottle of hand sanitizer, a container of Lysol wipes, and a sign that read, "please clean your area when you are through".

Port Hawkesbury man back in court facing drug charges ...
Port Hawkesbury Courthouse

Crown Counsel asked permission to participate by video link from another room in the Courthouse to limit their exposure; Erin participated by video link as well because there were multiple accused and counsel inside the Courtroom.

Before the first witness testified, the Judge instructed that persons in the gallery would not be allowed to leave or enter the Courtroom unless there was a recess in the proceeding.  Persons in the Courtroom were to be masked at all times and must remain in their designated spot.  He instructed counsel that they were not to approach each other or their clients.  Counsel, for the first time, would be encouraged and allowed to text each other during proceedings.  If that did not work, they would be able to meet in a designated room outside of the Courtroom.  Witnesses were limited as to what they touch and a sheriff was appointed to be in charge of cleaning the witness box and exhibits. With those instructions, the Crown called their first witness.

As the first witness began their testimony it was obvious that, despite all the rules put in place, a nervous person will touch anything and everything around them. It was immediately evident that cleaning between witnesses was going to be more involved than planned.

Another thing: it gets hot wearing a mask. Very hot. A trials are often conducted over multiple full days and the masks are uncomfortable. We know how health care professionals feel now. While we anticipated feeling uncomfortable in the masks, we didn't anticipate how witnesses, who would already be anxious to be in a Courtroom at the best of times, would feel with their faces covered by masks. Many witnesses were coming out in public for the first time since the pandemic began. Nerves and tensions were high.

As the day and the hand sanitizing went on, we all became slightly forgetful of the new regulations - perhaps we were all somewhat fatigued by it all already. Almost everyone realized they were doing something they should not have been by late afternoon.

The "new normal" has changed Court proceedings. Witnesses are more nervous and uncomfortable. Pre-trial procedures are more involved. Health and safety measures (although necessary) add time to the length of a trial. None of these changes are unmanageable. We had a trial with five witnesses, exhibit books, two accused in custody, and four lawyers, without anyone being familiar with the new COVID process - we still made it work. It was certainly different, but once everyone has some experience conducting matters the new way, the Court should have no problem operating safely and efficiently.

This post was co-written by our criminal and personal injury lawyer, Tj McKeough, and our articled clerk, Erin Huntington.

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Anna Manley

Anna Manley
Anna is the principal lawyer of Manley Law Inc. and is a regular contributor to the Manley Law Blog. She practices in the areas of Real Estate, Privacy/Internet, Corporate, and Wills & Estates

Erin Huntington

Erin Huntington
Erin is an articled clerk at Manley Law Inc. and is a regular contributor to the Manley Law Blog.