SASKATOON -- The court systems in Saskatchewan have had to change how they operate during the pandemic, from appearances in court via video monitors to information gathering and presentation of evidence.

Saskatoon commercial litigator Caroline Smith, a partner with McKercher LLP, attends court while sitting in the guest room of her house.

“Virtually everything is digital these days from appearing in court to speaking with clients to collecting information from them,” she said.

“I think in the legal profession, generally it's been a good opportunity for us to do a lot of innovations that wouldn't have been a high priority otherwise, if it weren't for the pandemic. People having to work from home, our clients working from home.”

In a statement to CTV News, the Ministry of Justice says the use of videoconferencing for hearings increased from 215,137 in 2019 to 308,678 in 2020, while WebEx was used 1,225 times for court proceedings across all levels of court between May and December 2020.

Smith says filing documents at the court was previously done by physically dropping them off at the courthouse, or by fax.

“There has been more of an opportunity during the pandemic to use email to file documents, although in my experience it's been difficult,” she said. “I know it's very difficult for the local registrar's office to manage because they get a huge volume of emails.”

Email is not necessarily a secure medium, Smith says, and would also open up the potential for computer viruses in the court system.

“I don't think it's a small feat to try to set up a system like that that works properly, but if it was up it would be really great,” she said.

“A more dedicated system might be an opportunity to allow that electronic filing without stressing the registrar's office out too much, and having things fall through the cracks.”

She says rather than going into a trial with binders full of paper, firms, clients, and courts are starting to adapt to the influx of new digital evidence which can be easier to organize.

Smith says she’d also like to see Canada follow the lead of the United States in accessing court documents online.

“Unfortunately you often have to pay for the privilege of access to that, but at least if you have them filed in electronic format you have fewer steps you have to go through to try to access those at the end of the day.”

Smith says because of Saskatchewan’s size and remoteness of some communities, the province’s court system has been more open to people appearing by phone.

“For that reason it seems the courts, at least the Court of Queen's Bench in Saskatchewan in civil matters, has been going with phone appearances for a lot of things rather than trying to adopt something like WebEx or Zoom like some of the other provinces are doing.”

Mandatory mediations in civil claims are happening by WebEx, Smith says, which she hopes will lead to more virtual mediations in Saskatchewan, but isn’t anticipating a widespread modernization of the court system in the province.

“It's also very chaotic for the courts and maybe not the best time for them to fundamentally change their procedures,” she said.

“I don't think there's going to be a lot of changes necessarily that I can see coming out of the pandemic for the Court of Queen's Bench in civil matters, but I'm hoping that there will be.”

Backlog of cases in court

The pandemic has created a backlog in court cases in provincial and federal court, which is delaying trial dates and the release of information.

Smith says there was a general shutdown in early 2020, where many cases were being adjourned and nothing was really able to happen.

She adds that criminal cases involving juries and complex civil and family cases that need be held in person are being prioritized, postponing several others.

“The court needs to try to prioritize criminal cases because there's timelines that the law requires you to go to trial within, otherwise the charges can be dismissed,” she said.

The Ministry of Justice says as of March 31, 2020, there were 11 Provincial Court points with a time-to-trial between seven and nine months, and one location had a time-to-trial of more than nine months.

As a result, Smith says some cases are being moved along outside of the courts, by way of private settlement process and settlements.

“Similarly there are options that are outside the court system like private arbitration,” she said.

“That might be able to happen either more quickly, or potentially electronically, that lawyers have been resorting to and can be used to try to get a decision a little bit faster than you might get it from the court system.”