Court Addresses Continuing Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Delays in Civil Jury Trials
In a recent Ontario case, the court addressed the continuing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on civil jury trials and made a variety of orders in anticipation of potential further delays.
Motor Vehicle Accident Jury Trial Delayed by COVID-19 Pandemic
The case arose from a motor vehicle accident that occurred on September 7, 2013. The statement of claim was issued April 8, 2015. However, for various procedural reasons, the matter was only put on the January 2021 trial sittings list.
Additionally, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the court was not hearing jury trials in January 2021. In response to a previous motion on the matter, the court had issued an order stating:
“The January 2021 trial date is vacated. The trial is rescheduled for the May 2021 Blitz list but shall not be called before June 1, 2021.”
While a further pretrial had been arranged for May 20, 2021 and the parties were ready to proceed to trial commencing on June 1, 2021, jury matters were still not scheduled to proceed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Initially, the defendants’ lawyer argued that the trial should be adjourned to the January 2022 sittings so that it could be heard by a jury.
However, counsel for both parties were then further advised that matters that were not reached in the January 2022 sittings would be traversed to the January 2023 sittings because the May 2022 sittings were already full.
As a result,the plaintiffs submitted a motion to strike the jury notice in light of the pandemic in order to allow the trial to proceed without further delay.
Court Makes Various Orders as a Result of COVID-19 Pandemic Delays
The court began by citing recent cases on similar matters. It noted that the effect of the orders in those decisions was that the trials were not to be delayed by waiting for the return of jury trials, but if for any reason when the trial was called and a jury trial was available, they would proceed with a jury.
The court noted that applying such an approach would effectively achieve the goal of avoiding further delay caused by the COVID-19 pandemic in bringing the matter to trial, while also protecting the statutory and substantive right to a trial by jury.
The court then observed:
“It is anticipated that the court will be inundated once pandemic restrictions are relaxed. Criminal jury trials will take precedence. The circumstances do not permit a jury trial currently and may not permit a jury trial for some time. Once jury trials are possible, the backlog in the system may result in considerable further delay. In contrast, the court can likely accommodate and hear this matter by videoconference during June  if it proceeds as a judge alone trial.
Before the pandemic, the delays litigants experienced in civil matters in this jurisdiction were significant and should not be normalized or considered acceptable. The pandemic is not the fault of either party or the court, but it has compounded the problem of delayed justice. The right to a jury must be weighed against the injustice inherent in a delayed trial, in a case which has already involved a lengthy delay, and which faces uncertain and potentially inordinate further delay if not reached in the upcoming sittings.”
As a result, the court made the following orders which anticipated the various scenarios that could arise depending on the existing circumstances:
- The matter was to remain on the list for upcoming sittings, not to be called before June 1, 2021.
- If the matter could be reached in the sittings, the jury notice would be struck and it would proceed as a judge alone trial.
- If the matter was not reached in the sittings, then it would be set for the earliest trial date convenient to the Court, to be fixed by the Trial Coordinator or by an assignment court judge, in the normal course for matters that are not reached during the sittings.
- If the Court could accommodate the trial of the actions on that set date, with a jury, it would proceed with a jury.
- If the Court could not accommodate the trial with a jury on that set date, the jury notice would be struck, and the trial would proceed before a judge alone.
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