Civil jury trials were temporarily suspended at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Ontario. In-person civil juries were considered a health risk, and technology gaps prevented a widespread shift to virtual civil jury trials. Now, with no end in sight to the pandemic and an enormous backlog of cases on the civil justice system’s docket, personal injury lawyers and other stakeholders are considering how best to move into the future. Is COVID-19 the end of civil jury trials in Ontario?
The Case for Eliminating Civil Jury Trials
In early June, Ontario Attorney General Doug Downey requested feedback from key stakeholders on the possibility of eliminating juries from civil trials in the province. At the heart of the proposed initiative was the concept that ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’
As all Ontario personal injury lawyers, the province faced a massive trial backlog caused by limited court resources even before the pandemic struck. Social distancing measures necessitated by the virus’s spread significantly exacerbated the issue. In order to address the backlog as efficiently as possible, the Attorney General’s office considered moving to judge-only trials for most civil cases, with exemptions for matters that “engage community values and a person’s character, such as defamation, false imprisonment and malicious prosecution,” according to Downey’s request for input.
“The needs of the justice sector have changed during this outbreak, and the demands on the system will continue to evolve as we begin to see the province reopening in stages,” read Downey’s request, per Canadian Lawyer. “To address these changes, we will continue to act on the guidance of public health experts, and we will continue to work together to develop new ways of conducting matters.”
There has been some support for Downey’s proposal. The Ontario Trial Lawyers Association (OTLA) supported temporarily suspending jury trials, and one past president told Canadian Lawyer that the proposed initiative had his full support.
“I think it’s bold, I think it’s appropriate,” Steve Rastin told the magazine. “I think what the attorney general is doing is giving some thought to how are we going to deal with the massive backlog that’s in the system right now.”
The Case Against Eliminating Civil Jury Trials
While the Attorney General’s proposal garnered some support, many personal injury lawyers also came out against it. The Toronto Lawyers Association (TLA), for example, stated that jury trials should continue. It argued that judges already have license to wave juries on a case-by-case basis and suggested that perhaps judges should have even more discretion over this issue given COVID-19’s unique impacts on the justice system.
TLA President Brett Harrison also pointed out in his response to Downey that jury trials are particularly important in diverse jurisdictions like Ontario.
“Against this social backdrop,” he wrote, “civil juries provide a vast array of life experiences including different socioeconomic, racial, cultural, and gender-based perspectives.
Harrison also called into question the theory that judge-only trials would guarantee speedier access to justice. While it is more expensive to gather a jury, and although jury cases often take longer to argue, decisions are delivered quickly and efficiently once final arguments have bene heard. In judge-only trials, the presiding justice may take weeks or even months to come to a decision.
“Further, while a jury trial may take up more court time, it does provide speedier access to justice in that the decision will be delivered promptly by the jury, and not held on reserve by a trial judge for sometimes months while the judge labours over his or her reasons for judgement,” Harrison wrote, according to Law Times.
How Will Decision Affect Personal Injury Plaintiffs?
The dispute over the future of jury trials in Ontario civil law is rooted in a single, simple question: ‘What is best for plaintiffs and defendants in civil cases?’
Every Ontarian deserves access to justice, and that access has been significantly hindered by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Attorney General’s instinct to suspend jury trials in order to provide speedier access to justice comes from a good place; however, valid concerns have been raised about its effectiveness. Will judge-only trials really be more efficient? Can Ontarians count on fair treatment at the hands of judges? Are judges’ existing discretionary powers not sufficient?
What matters now is that the stakeholders with influence over the civil justice system – personal injury lawyers, politicians, judges, etc. – come to a decision that ensures injured plaintiffs can access the compensation they need during their recoveries.
Contact Will Davidson LLP
If you’ve been injured as a result of the negligence or avoidable error of another person, business, or government, contact Will Davidson LLP today to schedule a free, no-obligation consultation. Our experienced team of personal injury lawyers has represented seriously injured Ontarians for decades. We have the expertise, experience, and understanding to provide guidance and support throughout the recovery process.