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Feds move to ease 'the chaos' in civil proceedings during pandemic


OTTAWA — The federal government wants to ensure the global COVID-19 pandemic doesn't make someone miss a crucial deadline in a bankruptcy case, divorce proceeding or other civil matter.

Justice Minister David Lametti is consulting opposition critics on a legislative proposal to provide flexibility on meeting such timelines.

It is unusual for the government to release draft legislation for feedback before tabling in the House of Commons, another sign that federal officials are looking for new ways to implement measures during the pandemic.

There are hundreds of deadlines fixed by statute at the federal level alone with respect to civil proceedings before the courts, the government says.

As a result, due to the pandemic-related shutdown, there is a risk many people will be unable to meet federal time limits through no fault of their own.

In other cases, the government says, people might ignore public health advice by attending court to preserve their interests.

In a letter to the other major political parties, Lametti said consultations have identified two kinds of "problematic deadlines" — those involving civil litigation and others concerning federal acts and regulations.

"It is important to act, both to protect the legal rights of Canadians and to ensure that they do not have to choose between protecting their health and meeting inflexible deadlines," the letter said. "By proposing this legislation, we can support Canada's pandemic recovery by reducing the chaos and the burden on everyone."

As an example, Lametti cited the Divorce Act, which grants someone who disagrees with the terms of a divorce judgment only 30 days to file an appeal.

Bankruptcy provisions contain mandatory timelines for businesses to file restructuring proposals or they automatically become bankrupt.

The timelines can be extended, but pandemic-related court closures may make this impossible, "needlessly forcing viable small businesses and individuals into bankruptcy," Lametti wrote.

Provincial governments and chief justices have done what they can to extend various limitation periods, but are now looking to the federal government for a more complete solution, he said.

Another area of concern is the national security review of foreign investments, which requires the federal government to make decisions on possible transactions within specified time limits.

Under the proposed legislation, orders to extend or suspend deadlines could be made retroactive to mid-March but would be no longer than six months in duration. In addition, the enabling legislation would expire Sept. 30.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 20, 2020.

Jim Bronskill , The Canadian Press

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