The pandemic-era justice system: one year in

People’s legal problems have not taken a hiatus during the Covid-19 pandemic. In what for some has felt like the longest year of their lives, holiday celebrations, weddings and birthdays have been canceled and postponed, yet legal problems continue to emerge, in some cases exacerbated by the pandemic. Since the pandemic’s onset, Access Pro Bono reports a 30 percent increase in demand for summary advice on everyday legal problems like debt, employment, landlord/tenant disputes and family law. These are areas of law where ordinary people were already struggling, and where the most vulnerable and marginalized people are affected most-Indigenous people, Black people and other people of colour, women, LGBTQ2S+ people, people with disabilities, and so on.

How has the justice system responded in British Columbia? In my view, we have plenty to be proud of: lawyers, notaries, self-represented litigants, judges, court and tribunal staff and the many other justice system participants have been creative and responsive to the very serious health risks that threatened access to justice. In just one year, we have become adept at, or at least familiar with, navigating electronic documents and conducting remote hearings, where both of those things were the exception pre-pandemic. Technology and adaptability have allowed the justice system to function while respecting pandemic requirements like social distancing.

At the same time, we have plenty to be concerned about. Families have reported serious difficulties using the family justice system, as hearings and deadlines were postponed, aggravating an already stressful and burdensome situation. Moreover, inequalities persist throughout the province in terms of people’s ability to access and effectively use online technologies. Perhaps less serious, but important nonetheless, people on both sides of the bench are “Zoom-fatigued” and feel disconnected from colleagues, community and family.

There are some signs of light ahead, as the vaccine roll-out expands, but I think it is agreed by most that what the justice system needs is not a return to normal. The lessons we have learned and the knowledge and experience we have gathered this year need to be carefully evaluated so that we can permanently incorporate those aspects of the pandemic-era justice system that further access to justice.

For instance, electronic filing and video hearings and appointments have meant less travel to registries, courtrooms, tribunals and law offices, saving time and money while keeping people safer. Integrating these changes permanently into the system demands that we do so in an equitable, user-centred manner, by investing to bring about the infrastructure and competence that will ensure access for all.

What are your thoughts on the pandemic-era justice system? Where have we merely tolerated less desirable substitutes for pre-pandemic aspects of the system? What should be kept or adapted going forward? If you have a story to share about a change you or your organization made to adapt and better meet user needs during the pandemic, please let us know on the A2JBC website’s Share your Story page.