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COVID-19: Protecting legal aid lawyers, justice system

April 16, 2020

Even as the government’s COVID-19 warnings and directives on physical distancing mounted, Society-represented Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) lawyers who work in provincial courthouses came face-to-face with people from all walks of life as part of their jobs. It was a potentially life-threatening situation that demanded immediate action. By working with LAO management, justice system stakeholders and the provincial government, key changes were made to keep Society members safe.

With a lengthy history of talking about modernization but never achieving it, Ontario’s court system had a difficult time adjusting to life with COVID-19. Hearings are done in person, documents need to be signed and hard copies submitted. To facilitate this system, people accused of crimes are transported in groups between detention centres and courts. The families and friends of accused people come to court to arrange the details of the accused’s bail conditions. Society-represented lawyers have to speak with all of these individuals and appear in court in order to do their jobs.

The danger in all of these interactions is exacerbated by Ontario’s chronic underfunding of courts. Courts’ cleaning services were barely adequate before a global pandemic. Once COVID-19 hit, cleaners were unable to sanitize every surface on a daily basis let alone at the end of each use. For example, interview rooms will be used by many different people on any day. As well, the office that Society members work out of is not resourced to provide every lawyer with their own workstation so they end up sharing work spaces throughout the day.

The Society’s LAO Local members were among the first to face this health risk but it’s easy to see how courts can quickly spread COVID-19 to the public at large and create lethal outbreaks inside Ontario’s overcrowded detention centres.

The LAO Local recognized the health and safety threats to its members quickly. Through frontline member input, the Local was able to convey specific concerns to management in early March. While LAO management is responsible for the safety of their employees, the agency was in a challenging position because the Ministry of the Attorney General manages courthouses and is therefore responsible for things like building cleanliness. Court buildings are run by the provincial government but the courts themselves are run by senior judges. On March 15, the courts decided to cease regular operations. However, urgent matters would continue to be heard. Bail hearings, for example, which are a major component of Society members’ work, would continue to be done in person.

By March 19, LAO CEO David Field recognized that it was still unsafe to be inside an Ontario courthouse. He ordered all LAO employees out of the courthouses. Instead, LAO lawyers performed their work remotely to the degree possible. Field’s decision to take his employees out of harm’s way was courageous and preserved Society members’ health and safety.

LAO Local Vice President wrote to Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey on March 19. In her letter, Fisher supported Field’s decision to remove LAO employees from the courts and pressed for courts to move completely to remote operations. The latter decision would protect everyone who continued to work in the courts as well as Society members’ clients and their families and friends who continued to have to subject themselves to unnecessary health and safety risks. Realizing that more needed to done to stop the spread of COVID-19, Ontario Chief Justice Lise Maisonneuve announced that almost all hearings would be done remotely while strict physical distancing measures would be used inside courts. The Society praised that decision in a news release issued that same day.

Though they will not set foot in the courts until after the outbreak is under control, LAO lawyers remain deeply concerned for the clients they serve and all Ontarians. In letters written on April 2 to the Attorney General and Solicitor General, Society President Scott Travers presented more than 20 recommendations to make the justice system work smoothly in these difficult circumstances and to staunch the spread of COVID-19.

Travers's letter to the Attorney General (AG) focused on use of resources and technology to support the smooth operation of the courts during COVID-19, as well as the role the AG should play in reducing the number of people in custody during the pandemic. The Society’s recommendations to the Solicitor General focused on reducing the population of Ontario detention centres and reducing the health and safety risks inside Ontario institutions.

The Society will remain vigilant about working conditions during COVID-19 and continue pressing the Ontario government to improve health and safety throughout the justice system.

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