As trials and most other proceedings continue to be postponed, members of the public can now attend some of the few matters taking place in the Yellowknife courthouse.
However, those wanting to enter the complex must answer a screening questionnaire from a Sheriff’s officer, have their temperature taken, and wear a face mask before being admitted.
Updating a directive originally issued in March, Territorial Court Chief Judge Robert Gorin said limited public access to courtrooms is possible under phase two of the NWT government’s Emerging Wisely pandemic recovery plan.
“Members of the public will be assessed before entering the courthouse building in order to determine whether they are exhibiting any physical symptoms,” stated Gorin.
“To ensure compliance with the directions given by the chief public health officer regarding social distancing, anyone attending will be required to sit only in designated seats.”
However, only 25 people are allowed per floor level, meaning the few available seats could fill up quickly. The updated order appears to be for Territorial Court only, as Supreme Court Chief Justice Louise Charbonneau did not update her directive at the same time as Gorin and has not changed it since April 28.
Her order still states: “Based on advice … from the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer, members of the public will not be permitted to attend court proceedings until further notice.”
While regular Territorial Court circuits into the communities have been suspended since mid-March, Gorin last week said some limited travel would now occur. A trial was scheduled for Inuvik this week with court staff set to travel on a regular commercial flight.
As Cabin Radio reported in early May, a large backlog of cases is building in most courts for accused both in custody and on bail.
When the first Covid-19 directives were issued in mid-March, the Territorial Court criminal docket showed more than 100 trials set to proceed. Some of those charges will likely be resolved without going to trial after negotiations with the Crown.
However, the backlog has only grown since then, with dozens of accused going before a justice of the peace in bail court each week.
That doesn’t include people who are charged and released on minor matters, but who will still have to show up in court at some point.
The Supreme Court’s pending list, as of June 25, shows some 90 matters across the territory – including judge and jury trials for sexual assault and murder.
Some sentencing and all bail applications have proceeded in recent weeks via video link.
Charbonneau stated sentencing hearings and hearings for submissions are proceeding with the accused appearing by video and counsel appearing by phone, as long as both parties agree. Hearings that cannot proceed remotely will be rescheduled.
Media have been able to attend court throughout the Covid-19 clampdown, either in person or monitoring proceedings by phone. Reporters must wear face coverings and sit in designated seats, apart from each other.
As of this week, court staff are wearing face masks.
Impact of travel restrictions
In recent court sittings, concerns have been raised about how lawyers and accused from outside the NWT will be able to travel to the territory when trials do proceed again.
“My understanding is with the public health orders in the Northwest Territories there are still restrictions for non-residents travelling to the Northwest Territories and there is a mandatory 14-day self-isolation,” Calgary-based lawyer Nicole Rodych told Charbonneau on June 15. She is representing a man facing drug charges from 2018 in Inuvik.
Her client, Talal Khatib, is also currently in Alberta after undergoing an operation and would be subject to the two-week self-isolation order upon his return.
Charbonneau expressed concerns over the delay in the case, noting the quality of witnesses’ evidence “doesn’t tend to improve over time.”
“I will state, for the record, I am aware and I have raised it with the Legal Aid office in general … the fact where we have quite a few matters where we have outside counsel,” she said, granting an adjournment in that case until September 21.
“And if that proves to be an insurmountable obstacle for some matters to proceed, there will have to be some matters taken as we cannot put off all of our trials.
“There is a point where something is going to have to be done to address the issue.”