The following letter was sent to Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey on March 19, 2020.
Dear Attorney General Downey,
I am writing to you on behalf of more than 300 Legal Aid Ontario lawyers represented by the Society of United Professionals. Today, Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) CEO David Field instructed all LAO staff who work in the courts, including our members, to not report to the courts due to health and safety concerns over transmission of COVID-19. While LAO lawyers want to continue to provide our services to Ontarians during these difficult times, based on our experiences over the past week, we believe Mr. Field made the correct decision. We are writing in hope that we can collaborate with the Ministry of the Attorney General and LAO management to help the courts operate safely and effectively in these unique circumstances.
We support LAO’s decision because current conditions in Ontario courts place LAO lawyers, as well as all other court staff, the public we encounter and our families at acute risk. Among the most concerning conditions LAO lawyers face are:
- Courthouses require LAO lawyers to interview clients in very small rooms that are not big enough to allow for six feet of space between lawyer and client. Most courthouses have no barrier between lawyers and clients, while those barriers that exist would not prevent transmission of COVID-19.
- Duty counsel offices receive visits from clients, their families who are there to help their family member be released from custody, . There is no proper screening for COVID-19 symptoms before entering the courts. People who visit can be very sick and there is limited or no hand sanitizer or tissue available to the public.
- There was no cleaning being performed in the majority of LAO offices and there is no enhanced cleaning happening yet in common areas.
- Lawyers must share desks, pens, phones and computers that are not wiped down.
- Personal protective equipment appropriate for the COVID-19 outbreak has not been provided to court staff.
These issues result in situations that put court staff health and safety at great jeopardy. On Monday, for instance, three women attended the College Park courthouse with flu-like symptoms. On Wednesday, we found out that all three have been tested for COVID-19. Staff and stakeholders interacted with the three women all day, and the women were housed in cells in close proximity to other clients.
One key to a safer work environment in the courts and managing COVID-19 in the justice system generally is reducing the population of Ontario’s correctional facilities. As the virus spreads to inmates, our overcrowded corrections system will become a significant disease vector. The jails are an incubator for COVID-19 while the courts become a gateway to the public. This threatens the health of inmates, staff and nearby communities, particularly given the strain it will put on local health care systems. For these reasons, we recommend that all appropriate inmates be released as soon as possible. This includes non-violent offenders, offenders who are deemed a low-risk to reoffend, and inmates with the underlying health conditions that put them at greatest risk.
Even during a pandemic, Ontario’s courts must operate smoothly in order to safeguard our constitutional rights. We are ready and willing to work with the Ministry of the Attorney General and LAO to develop timely and effective solutions to all of the issues we have raised in this letter. This could include more effective use of technology to eliminate or significantly reduce the need to have duty counsel in court.
With the leadership of this province’s public health experts, Ontarians have made extraordinary sacrifices that seemed unthinkable just days ago. We recognize that in these turbulent times nothing will be perfect but we must do everything in our power to stop the spread of COVID-19. We strongly believe that means changing how our courts operate to protect the people within the system and those we come in contact with.
I am available at your earliest convenience [personal contact information removed].
Legal Aid Ontario Lawyers Local,
Society of United Professionals