Red Deer judges are increasingly dispensing justice in virtual courtrooms to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Remand centre inmates, lawyers, Crown prosecutors and judges are linked by video for court appearances.
“Courtroom 101 in Red Deer has now gone to strictly virtual court. Docket court has gone all virtual and right now is limited to in-custody matters,” said Red Deer defence lawyer Jason Snider.
Docket court is one of the busiest days at the courthouse. The gallery is routinely packed with many others awaiting their court appearances, sitting outside in what would be a very anti-physical distancing environment.
All non-custody appearances have now been delayed at least 10 weeks. Some trials where the accused is in custody are being held, but only witnesses and other necessary people are allowed in court.
Alberta Justice told lawyers on Thursday that it was expanding remote out-of-custody to include guilty pleas, peace bonds and bail release condition changes. Clients must agree to waive their rights to an in-person appearance.
“I know that Alberta Justice and the court system generally is looking to expand its capacity for that,” said Snider.
“I think this virtual court system is going to persist for some time, likely until the pandemic is declared over, whenever that will be,” said Snider, who is president of the Red Deer Criminal Defence Lawyers Association.
That may not happen until a vaccine is available, which most health experts predict is a year or 18 months away.
“The court system can’t be stalled for that long, so they’ve got to do something.”
Changes have also been made at remand centres, where the accused are held while their cases work their way through the justice system.
Edmonton Remand Centre has set up video booths in each unit.
“The clients are going to the interview booths in the unit, so they are not contaminating or having contact between clients from different units. So if there is an outbreak, it will be limited to a unit and not the entire remand centre,” he said.
In Red Deer, where 70 inmates are housed, the usual closed-circuit TV area is used, but mask-wearing sheriffs are keeping inmates from different units separate and taking other measures to maintain physical distancing where possible.
“I know that when people are arrested, they are being segregated for the first 14 days, so they are not in the unit population until they have been confirmed to have gone through a 14-day quarantine,” Snider said.
Some remand centre inmates are apprehensive about the possibility of COVID-19 making its way behind bars.
Snider said some of his clients have higher risk factors, such as age or existing health issues, and are worried about what could happen.
A woman with asthma is particularly concerned.
“She is worried (COVID) will go through the remand centre and she will never leave remand, because she will die.”
Snider said he has not heard of any inmates being infected with COVID so far.
Alberta Justice says it asking more detailed screening questions to find out if the incoming prisoner has travelled recently, or been in contact with someone infected.
Hand sanitizers, soap and water have been provided to encourage frequent hand washing.
Should an inmate show cold or flu symptoms, they must immediately wash their hands and then they are given a mask and gloves.
Alberta Health Services will then be called in to check on the inmate and determine if isolation is needed.