Supreme Court goes Zoom: court to start virtual hearings during pandemic closure

Canada’s top court will begin virtual hearings for the first time next week — and members of the public will be allowed to watch the justices at work.

The Supreme Court hearings will take place through the video conferencing platform Zoom. In a media release, Chief Justice Richard Wagner said the court has been doing its work remotely even though the building has been closed to visitors due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We may not be able to welcome members of the public to our physical courtroom, but we are excited to invite everyone to our virtual courtroom for the first time,” he said.

Observer spaces will be available to “remain consistent with the spirit of the open-court principle,” said the release. It’s the first time in Supreme Court history that the court has held hearings virtually.

The hearings will be livestreamed on the court’s website as well.

Observers and people watching the webcast on the Court’s website will hear the same discussions and arguments but may have a slightly different view of the proceedings, the release said.

Virtual observers must register on the Court’s website by 1 p.m. this Friday. Registration is not required to watch the webcast.

The Supreme Court is holding a series of hearings from June 8-19 for cases involving contract law, the right to a timely trial and admissibility of evidence.

In another historic first, the Supreme Court took its hearings on the road last year to give more Canadians a close-up view of the top court at work.

Justices travelled to Winnipeg in late September to hear two appeals and to hold meetings with individuals and groups in Manitoba.

It was the first time the Supreme Court of Canada had heard a case outside of Ottawa, and it followed similar moves by high courts in the U.K., Australia and France.

The Supreme Court is also trying to make the court’s activities more accessible to Canadians by producing plain-language summaries of judgments, and using social media platforms to spread the word about its work.

Other courts have gone virtual in response to the pandemic. In Ontario, Chief Justice of the Ontario Superior Court Geoffrey Morawetz said some of the changes brought on by COVID-19 will be here to stay.

 “We have been forced, and the Ministry has been forced, to accelerate its plans to move to electronic hearings and also to electronic filings and we cannot go back … it is time for Ontario to push forward … we cannot go backwards,” he said in an April tweet.

Virtual hearings and electronic filings have posed challenges for lower courts and raised concerns about privacy and transparency, but some experts predict there will be no return to the old paper-based system after the pandemic subsides. 

Other courts are moving already to resume limited in-person hearings. The British Columbia provincial court, for example, will begin in-person proceedings for priority matters starting June 8.

Saskatchewan is also opening up to live hearings, with strict protocols in place limiting the hearings to the lawyers, staff and individuals directly involved in the case.

Supreme Court of Canada Chief Justice Richard Wagner is inviting the public to observe the high court’s first virtual hearings, which begin next week. (Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS)



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