October 13, 2020 | COVID-19

COVID-19: Is Video Conferencing an option for a court?

Covid-19 has turned our world as we know it upside down and the legal world is no exception. Since March 2020, the Quebec courthouses have had to make adjustments in order to protect people from the virus. We receive regular updates on whether in-person hearings or video conferencing are available based on the nature of the files. To answer the question of whether video conferencing is an option for a court date: it needs to be analyzed on a case by case basis.

Virtual hearings make it possible for certain matters to be heard by a judge without requiring the parties to be present at the courthouse. The court has made it very clear that if it is necessary for the lawyers to be present, the preference is that the clients not attend. Some hearings can also be held in semi-virtual courtrooms, meaning that one or several participants authorized by the court are present in the physical courthouse while others attend remotely. Virtual or semi-virtual hearings can be accessed through a secure platform with a computer, laptop, tablet, smartphone or videoconferencing system. This platform requires an Internet connection. It is also possible to attend these hearings by telephone (https://www.justice.gouv.qc.ca/en/judicial-system/virtual-courtroom-hearings/).

Each Quebec courthouse has a different set of rules and then within each courthouse, the rules are different for each courtroom (civil law vs. family law vs. criminal law). For example, in the Montreal courthouse for family law, you currently need to send in a request form to proceed by video conference 48 hours before your hearing. If not, the default is that it will proceed with an in-person hearing. However, in general, the Quebec courthouses are encouraging less people in court to prevent the spread of the virus.

In recent weeks, the Department of Justice has announced to various authorities that judicial services will now use the TEAMS videoconferencing tool for virtual hearings. Since last May, the possibility of holding hearings in a virtual courtroom had been available but the courts were using WebRTC, which revealed connection limitations and caused instability problems. The gradual deployment of this new solution of using TEAMS began on September 8, 2020. The TEAMS solution is secure and ensures the confidentiality of proceedings (huis clos (behind closed door) hearings).

Here are the courthouses included in the first phase of the project:

  • Phase 1: As of Monday, August 31, 2020: Longueuil Court of Appeal and courthouse.

  • Phase 2: As of Monday, September 7, 2020: All courthouses in the regions of Montreal, Laval, Laurentians, Lanaudière, Labelle, Montérégie Est, Outaouais, Centre-du-Québec and Eastern Townships.

You can check out the Microsoft TEAMS user guide for more information: https://www.justice.gouv.qc.ca/fileadmin/user_upload/contenu/documents/En__Anglais_/centredoc/publications/systeme-judiciaire/MJQ_Guide_Audience_Teams-public_VA.pdf

In terms of in-person hearings, as of September 1, 2020, for civil and family law matters, the Superior Court resumed its operations, putting in place sanitary measures, and if necessary, taking into consideration certain criteria of urgency or priority, where appropriate. The list of urgent matters for civil and family sectors can be found at this link: http://www.tribunaux.qc.ca/c-superieure/avis/Communique_-_liste_des_matieres_urgentes_-_version_anglaise_-_26_june_2020.pdf?

It is worth noting that for family law matters, any non-contested application to homologate an agreement or to renew a safeguard order for a matter appearing on the role in room 2.17 of the Montreal courthouse can be sent by email to courpratique-217@justice.gouv.qc.ca, the day before the date of presentation, or until 8:30 a.m. on the morning of the day of the presentation. Even if transmitted by e-mail, prosecutors must complete the following form: https://www.barreaudemontreal.qc.ca/sites/default/files/cs-fam_frm-demandes_sous_enveloppe.pdf

For more information on how to submit forms and applications by email, consult this link: https://www.barreau.qc.ca/media/2568/20200901-message-cour-superieure-district-montreal.pdf

Moreover, on September 21, 2020, when the Montreal region was in the Orange Zone, the Superior Court of Quebec issued a press release with respect to the Montreal courthouse. It stated that in the orange zone, it is essential to limit unnecessary travel and that according to the standards set by the Public Health Branch, the capacity at the courthouse’s reception is approximately 1280 people for members of the public (including lawyers) and that since September 8, the number of people present at the courthouse was steadily increasing. The court therefore sought the collaboration of the members of the Bar of Montreal so that additional efforts be made to meet the quota imposed on the number of maximum number of members of the public present at the Palais de justice de Montréal. For that reason, there were a number of rules imposed such as:

  • Section 20 of the Code of Civil Procedure should apply and lawyers should discuss amongst themselves before attending court;

  • Parties whose presence is not required at the hearing, especially in family and civil practice rooms, should not attend the courthouse;

  • Meetings, negotiations and exchanges between lawyers and their clients should take place, as much as possible, and especially in family and civil law, outside the courthouse. It is therefore strongly advised not to prepare the files in the corridors of the courthouse, in particular to write sworn statements

  • Wearing masks in corridors and common areas and distancing yourself at two meters is mandatory. The distance applies even when wearing a mask.

Lawyers and members of the public should be continually checking the Barreau de Quebec website for updates related to Covid-19. You can consult the link here: https://www.barreau.qc.ca/en/whats-new/avis-aux-membres/covid19/

For any questions or concerns, do not hesitate to reach out to us!