Coronavirus (Covid-19) and the Criminal Justice System in OntarioAndrew Captan
At the time of writing, there are 424 confirmed Coronavirus cases in Canada — the majority of those (177) being in Ontario. By the time you read this entry, that number will likely be significantly different. Just a few days ago, Ontario health officials confirmed at least a few cases in which transmission of the virus occurred within the community. The numbers in Canada pale into significance when you look at the figures in Europe. Italy, for example, recently confirmed 368 deaths in the span of 24 hours. Despite Canada’s comparatively lower numbers than many other countries in the world, as a society we are still reeling from the effects of this contagious virus.
In the context of criminal law in Ontario, the impact was swift and impactful. Within the span of a few days, the government issued directives effectively restricting attendance in both the Superior Court of Justice and Ontario Court of Justice, for all but the most urgent types of cases. For example, matters that are in court between March 16 and April 3 will automatically be adjourned 10 weeks to a new court date, without the attendance of the accused person. For more information on this directive, you can visit the Ontario Court of Justice’s website. The government will continue to evaluate this fluid situation and will likely release new directives we gradually progress through this period of time.
The effects of this unprecedented move will likely have significant consequences on the criminal justice system. For instance, every accused has a right to a trial within a reasonable amount of time, as guaranteed by s.11(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. While the delay that is directly caused by the changes to court operations will not be the type that an accused will be able to argue is “unreasonable” (given the legal parameteres set out in R. v. Jordan, 2016 SCC 27), it will be the indirect effects of these restrictions that could send the criminal court system into a backlog.
The Coronavirus may have other, less obvious, implications for criminal justice in Ontario. One of these might be an increase in certain categories of criminal offences. We could see an increase in domestic violence cases with the increase of social distancing, as an example. Isolation, even if it’s with a loved one, can have devastating effects on our mood. This could create strains on interpersonal relationships, as well as emotional outbursts that turn physical. In China, divorce rates have increased during the period of lockdown.
We may also see an increase of property crimes, during a period of anticipated economic strife. Theft, Fraud and Possession of Property Obtained by Crime are three potential offences that may see spikes during this period of uncertainty.