Most of Alberta’s circuit courts across the province will reopen their doors Sept. 14 with health and safety changes in place.
Morinville, Barrhead, Westlock and Athabasca provincial courts, listed as Alberta circuit points, temporarily moved their base of operation to St. Albert Provincial Court building in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Prior to COVID, Morinville, Barrhead, Westlock and Athabasca each had one circuit day – some for criminal court, docket appearances, trial or civil cases. Court proceedings were handled through individual communities,” said assistant Chief Judge Jacqueline E. Schaffter.
From late March to present day, the town’s residents were required to travel to St. Albert when dealing with adult criminal, traffic or civil litigation, as well as family and youth proceedings.
During the COVID shutdown, these four circuit courts locked their doors and cases were dealt with at St. Albert Provincial Court. At the time, it was considered the wisest decision. Schaffter said that the courts were still open for people who needed to bring their matters forward.
“The courts were never fully closed. Many matters were adjourned for six weeks between March and July and then adjourned again. But in that time, if someone wanted to enter a guilty plea, the matter was dealt with,” Schaffter explained.
The courts amplified the use of WebEx, a video conferencing system, that reduced the number of visits from small towns and remote areas to courts such as St. Albert’s Provincial Court. However, long distance travel for both counsel and the accused was demanding.
Schaffter noted Legal Aid set up a process where cases could be handled remotely. An accused could contact a duty counsel 48 hours prior to an appearance in court. A duty counsel is an experienced lawyer who works in rotation at a courthouse and is assigned to provide introductory legal advice.
They can advise on adjournments, bail applications or provide support in preparing paperwork. If an accused decides to go to trial, he/she would be referred to Legal Aid or the private bar.
For Schaffter it is important the courts in smaller jurisdictions remain open and there is timely access to justice even if a second pandemic wave arises.
“We are better prepared to handle a second wave with Webex that provides remote access. We want people who come to court to feel safe. We have taken all the precautions with masks, hand sanitizers and there are Plexiglas panels around the judge, clerks and counsel. People should feel comfortable. It’s as safe an environment as we can make it. If you don’t feel safe, we have mechanisms in place to access the courts remotely.”
Anyone requiring information about the reopening of circuit courts in Morinville, Barrhead, Westlock and Athabasca or about using WebEx can call 780-458-7300 or email STAP@csadm.just.gov.ab.ca.
Individual protocols for different regions can be found on the province's COVID-19 information page.