The COVID-19 Pandemic continues to cause widespread shutdown of many businesses and services across Ontario. Although law firms (and lawyers in general) have been deemed to be an essential service by the province and are therefore exempt from the recent government shutdown, many law practices are encouraging lawyers and support staff to work from home as we all work to “flatten the curve”.
Government, the courts and the legal profession have taken meaningful actions to accommodate the litigation bar allowing us to keep practicing during this difficult time. For instance, last week limitation periods were suspended in Ontario and a number of Superior Court decisions were released as the court worked to deal with urgent matters.
This week, a number of other measures were announced to keep the legal system moving during this extraordinary time:
- An order was issued under the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act to amend the rules for service on the Crown and related entities, including the office of the Children’s Lawyer, the Public Guardian and Trustee and the Director of the Family Responsibility Office. The order states that all documents served on those entities must be served by email, rather than in person. Each entity has a specific address for service, which can all be found here.
- Legal Aid Ontario has made some changes to its provision of summary legal services across Ontario. Effective March 24, 2020, people seeking legal aid services through the Family Law Information Centres and summary legal advice for criminal matters will now be able to get help over the phone (rather than in person) by calling 1-800-668.8258. During this time, Legal Aid Ontario is also waiving its regular financial eligibility requirements to receive summary legal advice.
- The Ministry of the Attorney General Court Services Division issued a Notice to the Legal Profession, expanding the Civil Claims Online service. Ontario has now vastly expanded the types of legal documents eligible for online filing. The documents which can now be filed online include:
- Jury Notices;
- All manner of pleadings, including defences, counterclaims, crossclaims and third (or subsequent) party claims;
- Certificates of Action under the Construction Act;
- Notices of Discontinuance; and
- Consents to Discontinuance.
Additionally, the expansion of services also enables parties to serve third (or subsequent) party claims and Certificates of Action under the Construction Act electronically.
- The Ontario Court of Appeal announced that, effective March 23, 2020, it will be closing all public counter services, but that all filings at the Court of Appeal can either be mailed or sent via email to email@example.com.
In addition to the steps taken by the government and the court system, the legal profession has also taken measures to allow for increased access to justice. Most notably, this week the Advocates Society announced the establishment of an E-Hearings Task Force in Ontario.
The task force, which was formed in co-operation with the Law Society of Ontario, the Federation of Ontario Law Associations and the Ontario Bar Association, is mandated with expanding virtual access to Ontario’s court system. Specifically, the task force seeks to implement the use of telephonic and video hearings in the courts to alleviate the requirement to attend in person and to accommodate the need for social distancing.
Although this project is in early days and no announcements have been made yet as to how it will function, it is still a very positive development towards providing access to justice during this time.
Aside from assisting us through the COVID-19 pandemic, these measures are good news for the legal profession in general, as they allow for smoother and more efficient practice protocols and promote the expanded use of technology in our legal system. Hopefully some of these developments will remain in place after the current situation subsides and things return to normal.
And speaking of returning to normal, recent court decisions have stressed that, while accommodations may be made for the time being, it will be back to business as usual once the courts re-open to the public. For instance, on March 20, 2020, in the matter of Chu Resto YS Inc. v Greentower Service Inc., 2020 ONSC 1721 and Karahalios v. Conservative Party of Canada, 2020 ONSC 1820, Justice Myers held that the parties to an urgent proceeding could serve and file their materials by email, but once the courts re-open, the parties are required to file hard copies of all materials that they previously filed electronically with the court.
Accordingly, when the courts start operating again, they will be able to function with complete records at their disposal for ongoing matters.