Action Committee on Court Operations in Response to COVID-19

Terms of Reference

1. Overview, Mandate and Key Outcomes

The Action Committee on Court Operations in Response to COVID-19 (“Action Committee”) is a national leadership body co-chaired by the Chief Justice of Canada, the Right Honourable Richard Wagner, and the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, the Honourable David Lametti. It is mandated to ensure that Canada’s chief justices, provincial and territorial ministers of justice, heads of court administration, and other officials responsible for the administration of justice are supported by the best available public health information, practices, and resources as they work to adapt and restore court operations in response to COVID-19.

Recognizing that the provinces and territories have primary responsibility for the administration of justice within their jurisdiction, and that the constitutional principle of judicial independence reserves key elements of courts administration to chief justices and courts themselves, the Action Committee will develop national principles and parameters, facilitate information-sharing and communication across jurisdictions, identify common needs and solutions, and promote a nationally harmonious approach to restoring Canadian court operations that places the health, safety, and the best interests of Canadians at the forefront.

2. Context

While courts have remained operative and the open courts principle has been upheld throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, court operations across Canada have been severely curtailed due to physical distancing and other public safety measures adopted by governments. In order to ensure the safety of court users and officials, and to assist local and national efforts to contain the pandemic, court hearings in all jurisdictions have been limited to the most urgent matters; new methods have been employed to facilitate remote hearings and the electronic filing of court documents; and rapid adaptations have been put in place to ensure that essential in-person court services and proceedings can be conducted safely. Owing to the remarkable dedication and resolve of court officials, legal professionals, judges, and members of the public alike, courts have thus remained open and the rule of law maintained. Many Canadians have nonetheless suffered delay, uncertainty, and barriers in accessing justice. The pandemic has exposed and magnified the shortcomings of existing outdated processes and practices, and has introduced new challenges to Canada’s justice system, most notably the creation of significant backlogs.

Canada’s courts are an integral part of our democracy, an essential service, and a critical pillar for economic activity at the local and national levels. As Canada’s economy gradually reopens in the shadow of COVID-19, Canadians will depend on the courts to ensure stable enforcement of their legal rights and relationships. Timely and safe restoration of court operations is thus essential to Canada’s broader recovery plan. This is especially true for vulnerable individuals and communities who rely on the courts to navigate periods of stress and uncertainty.

While regional and jurisdictional variation are integral to Canada’s court system, such that local adaptations to COVID-19 must be led by local authorities, Canadians have a shared interest in accessible and effective justice. This requires close and respectful collaboration amongst federal, provincial and territorial justice ministries and with Canada’s judiciary at all levels, with a view to supporting one another in emerging from the crisis. Effective collaboration will support appropriate local leadership and decision-making in relation to court operations, informed by the best public health information and resources.

3. Mandate

  1. The Action Committee will adapt public health principles and guidelines identified by First Ministers and health authorities to the unique context of courts, providing national guidance to support the restoration and stabilization of court operations in all jurisdictions. This guidance will be of a non-prescriptive nature, enabling chief justices, chief judges, justice ministries, and courts officials to develop protocols suited to the circumstances of individual courts and their communities. Recognizing that community needs and corresponding responses will vary, the Action Committee will support the alignment of practices reflecting Canadians’ common needs and interests across the justice system.
  2. The Action Committee will promote coordination and collaboration, facilitate information sharing, and support the identification of common principles and best practices in restoring and stabilizing court operations, while ensuring the safety of all court users and officials. Information-sharing will not be limited to guidance developed by the Action Committee itself, but will also apply to the distribution of documents, guidelines, and updates emanating from individual courts, as appropriate. The Committee will also encourage and promote effective communication of information both to decision-makers and to Canadians.
  3. The Action Committee will focus primarily on the immediate need to restore and stabilize court operations, including the resumption of in-person judicial processes and hearings. To this end, the Action Committee will consider:
    1. minimum health and safety thresholds required for the resumption of in-person judicial hearings and processes; and
    2. appropriate long-term protocols to sustain court operations in a manner that protects the health and safety of court users and officials.
  4. While focused on immediate and near-term measures, the Action Committee will work to ensure the consistency of its national guidelines with parallel, medium-term planning toward the modernization of Canada’s justice system and improvement of access to justice through sector-wide innovation and reform.

4. Key Principles and Considerations

The Action Committee will be guided by the following principles and considerations:

  • The health and safety of court users and staff is paramount.
  • Courts exist to serve the public, and planning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic must be driven by the needs, perspectives, and best interests of Canadians.
  • The open court principle is key to ensuring public confidence in the justice system. As much as possible, court proceedings should be open and accessible to the public and the media, including when hearings are conducted remotely.
  • The needs of Canada’s most vulnerable people and communities, and of those most severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, must be accounted for.
  • The operation of an effective court system is a constitutional responsibility jointly shared by the federal, provincial, and territorial governments and a strong and independent judiciary, informed by mutual accountability to Canadians.
  • The administration of courts in the provinces and territories falls within provincial and territorial jurisdiction, such that national guidelines cannot supplant the authority and leadership of appropriate provincial officials.
  • Judicial independence is a fundamental constitutional principle and includes judicial leadership and control over critical elements of court administration.
  • The impacts inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic on the court system and its users provide an opportunity for lasting improvement, resilience to better withstand future challenges, and modernization.

5. Composition

The Action Committee is composed of the following members:

  • Right Honourable Richard Wagner, Chief Justice of Canada (Co-Chair)
  • Honourable David Lametti, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada (Co-Chair)
  • Two representatives of the Canadian Judicial Council
    • Honourable Geoffrey Morawetz, Chief Justice of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice
    • Honourable Mary Moreau, Chief Justice of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta
  • Honourable Terry Matchett, Chief Judge of the Provincial Court of Alberta and Past Chair of the Canadian Council of Chief Judges
  • Honourable David Eby, Attorney General of British Columbia
  • Nathalie G. Drouin, Ad. E., Deputy Minister of Justice and Deputy Attorney General of Canada
  • Tina Namiesniowski, President of the Public Health Agency of Canada
  • Renée Thériault, Executive Legal Officer, Supreme Court of Canada (member ex officio)

Recognizing the heavy and wide-ranging responsibilities all Committee members carry, members may choose to send alternates to represent them where necessary.

To ensure the most effective use of members’ time, the Action Committee may choose to delegate tasks to a sub-committee or working group to advance the work between meetings.

6. Meetings and Timelines

The Action Committee will conduct its first meeting on May 8, 2020, and convene on a weekly basis thereafter, or as determined by the co-Chairs. As court operations are progressively restored and stabilized throughout the country, meetings may be reduced and discontinued in the Committee’s discretion. The Committee may, however, be reconstituted in response to future outbreaks or other events stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. The Committee will meet by teleconference.

7. Operational Support

Operational support, including the preparation of national guidelines or other resources under the direction of the Action Committee, will be provided by the Department of Justice Canada, in coordination with other officials or organizations as the Committee may determine.

May 22, 2020
Ottawa, Ontario

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