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. 

Psychedelics and Automatism

“No person is criminally responsible for an act committed or an omission made while suffering from a mental disorder that rendered the person incapable of appreciating the nature and quality of the act or omission or of knowing that it was wrong”


He was a student and Captain of Mount Royal University’s hockey team – but that changed on January 13, 2018, after taking a large dose of magic mushrooms.

Shortly after ingesting 4 grams of mushrooms at a house party, Matthew Brown took off all of his clothing and disappeared into the freezing night. Eventually, he came upon the home of a Mount Royal University professor that he had never met before. He broke into her home and beat her with a broken broom handle, leaving her with severe injuries. After leaving her residence, he broke into another home where he was eventually apprehended by the police. 

On March 2, 2020, he was acquitted after mounting a successful defence of “non-insane automatism” resulting from severe self-intoxication.

Mr. Brown was acquitted and walked out of court a free man. His actions were found to be involuntary – but not by reason of mental disorder. His defence of non-insane automatism resulting from severe self-intoxication was only available after a pre-trial ruling in which a judge found that Section 33.1 of the Criminal Code, prohibiting self-intoxication as a defence, was unconstitutional.

Non-insane automatism and insane automatism both involve an Accused person that was unaware of the consequences of their actions at the time of the offence, and therefore could not form intent required to prosecute the offence.

In Mr. Brown’s case, his automatism ended when the effects of the drugs wore off, and he was left with no memory of the event. Since his actions were not attributed to a disease that would have recurring symptoms, a Not Criminally Responsible according to Mental Disorder (NCRMD) finding would have been inappropriate.

A finding of NCRMD relates to automatism as a consequence of a mental disorder. Unlike automatism resulting from intoxication, it does not result in an acquittal. NCRMD is most commonly seen in cases where an Accused suffers from severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia. Across Canada, the number of Accused deemed NCRMD is small, however, media attention on these particular cases often results in public outrage.

After a judge has determined that an Accused is NCRMD, the case is usually handed over to the Review Board (governed by Province/Territory) where there are three possible outcomes:

  • Absolute Discharge
  • Conditional Discharge
  • Detention in a hospital

While most cases do end up under the authority of the Review Board, the Court of hearing has the discretion to proceed to disposition if it feels appropriate in the circumstances. If the Court orders an Absolute Discharge (the only available option when the Accused has been found not to pose a significant risk to the public), the matter is concluded. If the Court orders a conditional discharge, or detention in a hospital, the Review Board must review the matter again with 90 days. In any circumstance, the Court or Review Board must impose whichever sentence is the least onerous and least restrictive on the Accused, all while balancing protection of the public and the interests, liberty and dignity of the Accused. There have been success stories, (which may again cause unnecessary alarm to the public) that demonstrate how effective rehabilitation of mentally ill offenders is far from hopeless. It is also important to note that the statistics surrounding NCRMD cases show that the prevalence of an NCRMD finding in relation to violent offences are low.