A Barrie courthouse updated for these unusual times will open to some limited in-person hearings Monday for the first time in nearly four months.
Plexiglass barriers have been installed throughout the three courtrooms that will be open, sanitation stations are now located throughout the building, seats in gathering spots have been blocked off to prevent crowding, and a new cleaning regime has been implemented.
Anyone entering the Mulcaster Street courthouse will be subject to screening for COVID-19 symptoms and be required to wear a face covering.
“It was kind of surreal,” said family lawyer and estate litigator David Harris-Lowe, who went through the courthouse during a recent tour ahead of its reopening.
Harris-Lowe as an active member of the Ontario Bar Association and the local family lawyers’ association was one of about 10 members on the tour who represented a cross-section of local users.
The provincial government is gradually reopening courtrooms and Barrie is among the first 44 locations to hold in-person hearings with a total of 149 courtrooms open provincewide in both the Superior and Ontario courts.
There’s no word yet on when the satellite courts across Simcoe County will open, although additional courtrooms are expected to open by September with the remaining ones opening Nov. 1.
And although a limited number of people will be allowed into the building to accommodate physical-disancing practices, and several courtrooms will continue being the base for virtual hearings, much remains the same.
At its core, it’s the same old courthouse, using the same old paper-based system dealing with the same old issues that are now magnified as a result of the unprecedented pause implemented as the world faced a health pandemic that has no reference point for current generations.
During the past several months, the system has quickly pivoted and much of the virtual hearings and other systems including written submissions replacing some oral ones are expected to continue.
There have been 21,000 calls in Ontario to hear matters remotely through phone and video conferencing since March 16, according to the provincial government.
But many cases were simply put on hold, piling up on top of a backlog of so many other cases..
“What’s not immediately clear is how many of those cases there are,” said Harris-Lowe. “I’m a bit frustrated, candidly, that the province has been able to figure out how to open up beer stores and liquor stores quickly and do that safely, but they haven’t been able to do that with the courthouses.
“I am concerned. I think that the courts are not seen as an essential enough service," he added. "And I would have hoped that they would have figured out a way to get some hearings or some more hearings going more quickly than what has happened.”
Much of the focus now is organizing the cases that need to be dealt with.
Lawyers are expected to call into a trial readiness court starting Monday to ensure that cases that are scheduled are ready to go ahead. Meanwhile so many others are widely expected to be bumped another 10 weeks.
“We don’t have enough courts to accommodate all the cases,” said Gary Pickard, president of the local criminal lawyers’ association.
And he expects the unusual circumstances exception will prevent lawyers lining up asking for their cases to be tossed on the argument of undue delay, at least for now.
“The next week or two we’ll have a better idea about how jammed up things are going to be,” said Pickard.