The global COVID-19 pandemic has had a severe impact on the way lawyers serve their clients, with many opting for remote meetings through phone calls and videoconferencing rather than in-person, says Toronto personal injury lawyer Brian Goldfinger.
In Ontario, across the country and around the world, governments have declared states of emergency, advocating that people work from home where possible and practice social distancing to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“We’re not conducting any in-person meetings,” Goldfinger says. “We’re doing as much as we can over the phone and on email. We have cancelled all meetings that required an appearance, including examinations for discovery and mediations, if we can’t do them over the phone or using videoconferencing. We don’t want to put anyone at risk.”
The courts have effectively suspended operations until further notice, hearing only urgent and emergency cases. The Superior Court of Justice shut down most operations as of March 17 in a bid to reduce the transmission of the virus, reports Global News.
While there have been efforts to modernize the legal system in recent years, the current crisis makes it clear that the system is not prepared for an emergency situation, Goldfinger says. E-filing is available for statements of claim, but courts refuse to accept electronic services of certain documents such as motion records, pre-trial briefs, requisitions or orders, which need to be filed in person, he explains.
“You have the option to send it by mail or courier, but that’s not the most effective way to handle it. If the courts don’t process it on the right day, it will be sent back. That’s why we pay people to deliver these documents in person. Whenever there’s an opportunity to deny something, the court will do so,” Goldfinger says.
Another issue this pandemic has highlighted is the lack of options available to members of the public, including media, who want to check what’s contained in a court file, he says. Currently, there is no remote portal to enable online access, so the only way is to physically attend the court and request access to the file, Goldfinger adds.
“This is not the best approach during a pandemic or time of emergency. It’s also costly and time-consuming. It’s like we are using a Dewey Decimal System in the internet age. This needs to change,” he says.
For years lawyers and their clients have complained that the courts are slow and behind the times, and Goldfinger says he hopes this pandemic can be an impetus for positive change, encouraging stakeholders to embrace more efficient ways of doing business.
“We can do much more virtually –– whether that’s through a simple phone call or teleconference or email –– as opposed to these old archaic measures of requiring a physical person to go to the court to file something, whether that be a pre-trial record or motion record,” he says.
Goldfinger suggests that such a move could potentially save millions of dollars and dramatically reduce the time lags resulting from misplaced documents.
“For those who work in courts, there will be less people coming up to their wicket. Instead, they could deal with the real pressing matters as opposed to routine filings or getting an order issued and entered. Moving those things online means there’s less chance of things getting misplaced,” he says.
Currently, lawyers have to pay processors to file documents with the court in person, and those costs are passed on to clients, Goldfinger says.
“If you have to pay someone to wait in line all day to file a pre-trial memorandum with the court and have it stamped, that’s a significant cost for a client when they’re already living on a reduced budget because of an injury,” he says. “And it’s something that can be done securely and efficiently through e-filing.
“Hopefully, this unfortunate situation we find ourselves is an eye-opener: it’s time to modernize our legal system,” Goldfinger says.
The Law Society of Ontario has developed guidance for lawyers and paralegals to support them in their delivery of legal services in the context of the Covid-10 pandemic, which can be accessed here.