Quebec courts reopen, but new rules worry some about justice unfolding in the dark
MONTREAL -- Quebec courts have reopened for non-urgent cases, but some changes designed to enforce physical distancing has some legal experts concerned.
At the Montreal courthouse, there are line-ups, foot markings, and lines on the floor encouraging a two-metro distancing policy, but courtroom procedures have also changed in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
More cases will be heard virtually and there is less seating permitted in each courtroom.
“It could look strange at the beginning but we are slowly getting used to strange things,” said Justice Minister Sonia Lebel.
For the past three months, courts have been hearing only urgent cases, for instance when someone had been detained. Now, judges will decide what cases get priority and which ones can be heard in person. There will be a maximum of 10 people in the courtroom.
That’s a concern, said defence lawyer Eric Sutton.
“(It) really, really is a huge limitation when you consider that there's a judge, two clerks, there's a prosecutor, there's a defence lawyer, a special constable -- you're already up to six people, with a witness it's seven, and there's really no room left for the public,” he said.
Sutton worries that could undermine how people see the justice system.
“It's a founding principle of our justice system that justice unfolds in a public setting. We don't want justice to appear to be meted out secretly,” he said.
As for jury trials, Lebel said they also present a particular challenge in the era of physical distancing, but they will take place.
“We have to think of new ways of doing it. Maybe we can think of dividing the jurors into different rooms and connecting them with a closed circuit technology so they can have all the discussions in the security they need to,” she said.
For now, it’s a work in progress.