COVID-19 UPDATE FROM TARNOW CRIMINAL LAWLearn More

Access to Justice: An Essential Service

High on the list of things that have changed due to COVID-19 is our perception of what truly qualifies as an essential service – the transportation of goods by freight haulers, grocery stores and pharmacies, waste management and sanitation, and the list goes on. Service providers in these sectors are now being recognized for their significant contributions to our communities. In recent weeks, safety measures have been formulated and established, such as the installation of acrylic screens to act as a barrier between cashiers and customers, temporarily suspending the use of cash, and constantly monitoring supply stocks and evaluating the best methods to ensure that protective personal equipment is available to those working in healthcare.  

But what about the justice system?


On March 18, 2020, court operations were abruptly suspended in BC. Mass adjournments of almost all trials, for those detained and those awaiting trial free in the community, has created uncertainty for accused persons and for their counsel. It has also highlighted systemic flaws that have been dismissed for far too long.

The Court of Appeal of BC was the first to announce that, beginning May 4, 2020, appeals (all appeals, not just those deemed urgent) would be heard using the platform “Zoom”. A notice from the Chief Justice of British Columbia elaborated further and noted that the courts would use Zoom only until the government supplied a “permanent, enterprise videoconferencing solution”, lending likelihood to the idea that some of the interventions relied upon during the COVID-19 pandemic could become permanent adaptations.

COVID-19 emphasized the court systems’ vulnerability to interruption. At some point along the line, preference to proceed with business as usual was prioritized over adjusting to function optimally in a society that is increasingly reliant on digital mechanisms.

Currently, much of the paperwork involved in criminal proceedings is processed manually by court services staff (with the exception of some electronic documents) at the registry. Rules for fax filing vary by registry, which often creates confusion for counsel.

Here are some examples of what modernization could look like:

Change

Effect

Online court schedule for all levels of courtCounsel can manage their court schedule with more flexibility and can coordinate appearances in various jurisdictions with other counsel to maximize efficiency
Video-conferencing from correctional facilities to the office of counsel and to the courtClients have more personal interactions with their counsel. Visits to the correctional centre can be limited (not replaced completely). If those in custody can appear exclusively by video, it reduces the number of inmates being transported via vehicle, saving time, money, and sheriffs’ resources
Enhanced online filing for court documentsFewer issues with errors relating to form. Court services staff spend less time on data entry manual processing.
Digital court filesCourt services staff can access all materials in one system and forward materials as needed to judicial staff. Storage of materials digitally saves an enormous amount of space. Archived files can be easily obtained rather than being stored “offsite”. Enhanced security for all files. Counsel could access court documents, such as a Record of Proceedings, online instead of having to make requests to court services staff
Digital disclosure transferAll disclosure would be digitized, allowing law enforcement, crown counsel, court staff, and defence counsel to exchange documents without delay. Significant reduction in paper usage and courier/postage costs.

While other sectors prioritize adopting innovation, the court system has all-but ignored important opportunities for tech reform. Budgetary limitations are a frequent excuse. And of course, cost is an important factor – but it should not override value. The technology exists and has the potential to be extremely advantageous in the courtroom, and is often utilized more frequently in more remote jurisdictions such as Prince George, BC and throughout the Yukon Territory. Due to the logistical difficulties associated with residing in a remote location, video-conferencing is often used at trial for out-of-town witnesses.  

Before the era of social distancing and COVID-19, there seemed little reason to forge ahead towards modernization with any sense of urgency – the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” comes to mind – but now, we simply don’t have a choice. 

The Wheels of Justice Turn Slowly

It has been over one month since the Courts of British Columbia significantly curtailed operations in an attempt to combat COVID-19.


For many of those who work in the legal field, it was this development that made it all real. It quickly became clear that the novel coronavirus had the potential to spread quickly, and the confined space of a courtroom serves as ideal grounds for transmission.  

Despite the coronavirus acting as a proverbial wrench in the gears of justice, the judicial system continues to putter along. This is largely due to increased utilization of technological tools like video/conferencing for court appearances and swearing of affidavits, and relaxing restrictions when it comes to fax/electronic filing of court documents.

Video conferencing isn’t new to the BC court system. As early as 2002, Judges across the province agreed that the technology improved procedural efficiency by facilitating witness testimony from distant locations and allowing interim appearances by video involving counsel from other jurisdictions. Judges also noted the value of video- conferencing for inmates at correctional centres – defeating the purpose of transferring multiple inmates from various correctional centres to various courthouses. The bottom line is that modernizing certain aspects of the criminal justice system makes sense financially and systemically – and events like COVID-19 demonstrate how it can have occupational benefits too.

At present, there is enormous value in modernizing certain judicial processes for two reasons – one, to limit face-to-face interactions between judicial staff, defence counsel and an Accused person, and two, to mitigate the consequences of what can only be described as colossal delay.

In reducing operations, the majority of criminal trials scheduled between March 18, 2020 and June 1, 2020, have been adjourned generally to dates in June and July, 2020. Cases that are deemed to be of an urgent nature will be able to proceed, although in a procedural sense, things will look different – for example, witnesses who would ordinarily appear before the Court to give evidence may be authorized to testify via video. For the most part, however, trials will proceed at a date that is likely much later than originally anticipated.

 

The situation is more grim for accused persons in custody awaiting their trial. Inmates are, of course, among the most vulnerable to contracting the novl coronavirus – a concern that was a topic of discussion before the courts closed – but didn’t really become part of the actual narrative until it was too late Trials for accused persons in custody have also been adjourned (for trials scheduled between March 23 and May 16, 2020).  Sentencing hearings and bail hearings for accused persons will proceed. This could be positive – for some, it might result in their immediate release from the correctional system. For others, further incarceration for as little as an additional 90 days in custody will be devastating, a potential death sentence. 

It is far too early to gauge how overwhelmed the court system will be at the return to business as usual – but when you consider that there was a huge backlog before COVID-19 shut it all down, it seems only reasonable that extreme measures – such as implementing night/weekend court, and permanently authorizing certain modernization measures – will need to be taken to truly return to normal.

Cannabis Legalization 2018

On October 17, 2018, which is just 1 short day away, cannabis becomes legal across all of Canada.


Cannabis legalization marks a huge shift in public policy, law, and will propel an industry that has existed in the shadows, into the limelight. While both federal and provincial governments have been candidly saying that legalization will not be perfect right away and will be a work in progress, most Canadians are viewing legalization as a step in the right direction as so many lives have been negatively affected by cannabis prohibition.

So, what will happen on October 17? The naysayers want you to believe that there will be a proliferation of crime in the streets. Stoned zombies walking around town. A dramatic rise in impaired drivers. However those that are educated on the subject know that the sky won’t fall and society will continue to function just as it did today, on October 16. What will change is that the millions of cannabis consumers in Canada won’t have to worry about being arrested (if they stay within the parameters of the new cannabis laws) and communities that allow for retail sales will be able to collect millions in tax dollars that can be pumped right back into public programs and infrastructure.

For a variety of reasons, there remains a considerable stigma associated to cannabis consumption. However as time goes on and people realize the benefits that legalization will bring, I predict that the stigma erodes and that society will regard cannabis favorably.

 

Booze cruise: Drinkin’ and Paddlin’


Impaired operation of a vehicle/vessel is illegal in British Columbia, the Yukon Territory, and really, across our entire nation. However, you may be surprised to learn that police agencies haven’t always exercised their discretion when determining what constitutes a “vessel”. We all know it is against the law to drive your motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, and common sense dictates that this also applies to motorcycles, and motorized boats – but did you know that it is (apparently) just as unlawful to knock back a few and go for a ride in your canoe?


Yes, the word “vessel” does not limit illegality to motorized methods of passage. Police agencies across Canada have been known to charge individuals for tipsy transport via canoe.

If you make the smart choice to ride your bicycle to/from the bar, and your swerving attracts the attention of police, you might be ticketed with public intoxication – but not impaired driving.

If you get caught canoeing down the Fraser River, you could potentially be charged with impaired operation of a vehicle/vessel – and if convicted, you would likely lose your driver’s license.

Even though you don’t need a license to operate a canoe, it probably isn’t smart to be drunk on the water. While you’re unlikely to harm anyone else, open water and alcohol don’t mix very well. You could end up paying big penalties for impaired operation of a canoe, the highest of which would be your life if you happen to fall overboard.

But, if you don’t heed my advice & find yourself being breathalyzed canoe-side – “thar she blows…. over .08”, contact our office to discuss your options.

We are conveniently located in Richmond, B.C. only a few steps away from Brighouse Station on the Canada Line, which brings you from various locations in Metro Vancouver in 20 minutes. We service all areas of the lower mainland (including but not limited to Surrey, New Westminster, Port Coquitlam, North Vancouver, and Abbotsford) the interior of B.C. (including but not limited to Cranbrook, Kelowna, Kamloops, and Salmon Arm), Northern B.C. (including but not limited to Prince George, Prince Rupert, and Quesnel) and in the Yukon Territory where we offer services in Whitehorse, Dawson City, and Old Crow. Contact our office today for your initial consultation.

High Risk: Marginalizing the Mentally Ill

A Justice of the BC Supreme Court refused to label    Allan Schoenborn as a “High Risk Offender”, meaning that designation has still not been successfully applied since it was introduced by the Harper Government.

Allan Schoenborn was found guilty, but not criminally responsible for the murders of his 3 young children, whom he believed had become victims of sexual abuse. Psychiatrists who assessed him unanimously agreed that he had been suffering from delusions and other symptoms consistent with a schizoaffective type disorder. As a result, it was determined that he did not bear legal culpability for his actions.

Although he was found to not be responsible for his actions, he was remanded to Colony Farm, a Forensic Psychiatric Hospital, for an indefinite period of time (as is standard with all NCR offenders).

The purpose of the Not Criminally Responsible, High Risk Offender legislation is aimed at designating offenders found not criminally responsible by reason of mental disorder as “high risk” if it can be proven that they pose a serious threat of inflicting grave physical or psychological harm to another person.

This legislation is strictly applicable to offenders found not criminally responsible – in essence, it is punitive legal recourse only available for individuals who have already been deemed as severely mentally ill.  

In her decision, Justice Martha Devlin determined that there was no reason to believe that Schoenborn met the criteria necessary for a High Risk designation. She noted that his current mental condition, along with the opinions of the experts overseeing his care, does not reflect him posing a serious threat to the public.

If the designation had been granted, it would have excluded Schoenborn from receiving escorted outings into the community, and would create a 3 year period between his review board hearings, as opposed to 1 year as is current procedure.

One of the biggest concerns we see in this legislation, is the effect it may have on offenders who should be entering a plea of not criminally responsible. The problem is that if an offender is likely to meet the criteria of a High Risk Offender once being deemed NCR, they may opt to take a determinate jail sentence simply because a High Risk Offender designation could seriously impede their ability to regain freedom from the psychiatric facility where they are being held. If an Accused person is told “plead guilty and you’ll get 10 years in jail” or given the option of “if you establish a NCR defence, there is a risk of a High Offender Designation, and I can’t tell you with any certainty whatsoever when, or if, you will ever be freed”, which option will likely seem more attractive?

Interestingly enough, Mr. Schoenborn’s high profile case was basically singled out by Stephen Harper when the “High Risk Designation for NCR Offenders” legislation was tabled in 2013. The decision by Justice Devlin demonstrates why impartiality and transparency are vital to the survival of judicial process: although the facts related to this case are heinous and disturbing, a path has been carved for Mr. Schoenborn, and Justice Devlin refused to hinder his progress. His NCR designation was not established in haste, and each step of his treatment since that time has been methodical and closely monitored. He requires intensive treatment and rehabilitation in order to, one day, have an opportunity at freedom.

Navigating through the criminal justice system as an Accused person is an intimidating experience. It is compounded when you are dealing with a mental illness. We are experienced in liaising with clients who suffer from severe mental health problems. We understand that compassion, respect and understanding are of fundamental importance when confronting with these issues. We are conveniently located in Richmond, B.C. only a few steps away from Brighouse Station on the Canada Line, which brings you from various locations in Metro Vancouver in 20 minutes. We service all areas of the lower mainland (including but not limited to Surrey, New Westminster, Port Coquitlam, North Vancouver, and Abbotsford) the interior of B.C. (including but not limited to Cranbrook, Kelowna, Kamloops, and Salmon Arm), Northern B.C. (including but not limited to Prince George, Prince Rupert, and Quesnel) and in the Yukon Territory where we offer services in Whitehorse, Dawson City, and Old Crow. Contact our office today for your initial consultation.

Basic Info: Brushing up

                     It is commonplace that first-time offenders rarely have a good understanding of the judicial process. Although it would be fantastic if everyone was fully apprised of their rights and obligations under Canadian law, it is unrealistic. However, I hope that this post will answer a few very common questions we receive on a daily basis.

Lets get started.

Q –     I’m looking at my Court documents, and it appears that I am being charged by someone named Regina. Who is she? I don’t even know anyone by that name?

A –     Regina is the latin word for Queen. As Queen Elizabeth II is the reigning Monarch,  Regina is the term used in legal context. When a male takes the throne, the term will change to Rex, the latin word for King.

Q –     My wife and I got into a really heated argument and the police were called. I was arrested and charged with assault, and now there is a no-contact order between us. My wife and I met for dinner last night to talk things over, and we agreed that it was silly to call the police. She would like to drop the charges, how can she do this?

A –      In British Columbia, individuals do not press charges, and neither do the police. The police investigate, prepare a report, and recommend charges to Crown Counsel. Crown Counsel then reviews the information and approves or denies charges based on the strength of the evidence. There must be a reasonable likelihood of conviction to pursue prosecution. In short, your wife cannot “drop the charges”. Additionally, since there is a no contact order in place, you cannot contact your wife, directly or indirectly, until the order is lifted. Ignoring the no  contact order could result in a Breach charge, landing you in jail.

Q –     I’ve been charged with an Indictable Offence. Is that a misdemeanor?

A –      The terms “misdemeanor” and “felony” are not rooted in Canada. Those terms are used in the United States. An indictable offence is very serious and carries significantly higher penalties than the less serious “summary offence”. One major difference is that summary offences can only be tried in Provincial Court by a Judge, whereas indictable offences can be tried in Supreme Court by a Judge an Jury. There are also “hybrid offences” which can be prosecuted by summary or indictment – impaired driving is one example. The choice to proceed by indictment is usually because of aggravating circumstances such as a car accident resulting in injuries.

Q –     I was arrested for impaired driving and given a Promise to Appear (“PTA”). Several weeks later, I was contacted by the police who told me that the PTA has been cancelled. Does this mean my charges are dropped?

A –      In short: no. Your PTA was likely cancelled because the police and Crown Counsel  are still in the early stages of their investigation. Once an Accused person has  attended their First Appearance, the judicial-delay clock starts ticking. The Supreme Court of Canada recently advised that proceedings in Provincial Court should run from start to finish in no more than 18 months – this means that you   must be charged, and proceed to trial within 18 months. If the proceedings take   longer than 18 months to be heard, there is probability for the case to be thrown   out due to delay. In Superior courts, the proceedings should be completed within 30 months. So, while your PTA has been cancelled, it does not in any way mean  that you are off the hook. There is no statute in Canada that prohibits the commencement of prosecution of criminal offences. In the United States, there is no statute of limitations on murder, but there is on sexual assaults and other serious criminal offences.

Hopefully the above information has answered a few of your questions, but likely not all of them. Of course, there are many complex questions that deserve a much more thorough explanation, and we are here ready to answer them.

Whether you have been charged with a minor offence under the Criminal Code such as theft under $5,000, assault, mischief under $5,000 or a more serious offence such as aggravated assault, sexual assault, assault causing bodily harm, or murder, it is crucial that you speak to one of our lawyers prior to making any statements to the police (which we will advise you not to do in any event), or anyone else for that matter. Because, although you’ll hear it from the cops first, I’m telling you again: what you say CAN and WILL be used against you.

We are conveniently located in Richmond, B.C. only a few steps away from Brighouse Station on the Canada Line, which brings you from various locations in Metro Vancouver in 20 minutes. We service all areas of the lower mainland (including but not limited to Surrey, New Westminster, Port Coquitlam, North Vancouver, and Abbotsford) the interior of B.C. (including but not limited to Cranbrook, Kelowna, Kamloops, and Salmon Arm), Northern B.C. (including but not limited to Prince George, Prince Rupert, and Quesnel) and in the Yukon Territory where we offer services in Whitehorse, Dawson City, and Old Crow.