Territorial Court will once a week use two large conference halls in Yellowknife’s Explorer Hotel as it moves to address a growing backlog while complying with Covid-19 public health orders.
The large space – both rooms combined are 3,337 square feet – normally has a capacity of 342 people. However, that number will be substantially lower each Tuesday as officials work to comply with NWT pandemic recovery guidelines.
“While these changes may result in disruption and some delay, it is necessary to be proactive under the circumstances,” stated Territorial Court Chief Judge Robert Gorin.
“The situation will be monitored closely and any updates [will be] posted on the courts website.”
The decision to utilize the hotel, a short walk from the courthouse, was announced in updated directives released last week by the territory’s two chief judges. The directives mark the first significant change since the suspension of many court activities in March.
In Yellowknife, people accused of crimes who are not in custody can now appear in person at the Explorer Hotel during the regular “docket day,” a weekly scheduling court that can hear dozens of cases.
Most are able to appear through their lawyer without being personally present, said Yellowknife lawyer Tú Pham, who is this week’s Legal Aid duty counsel.
“They are encouraged to contact their lawyers to see if this is possible,” Pham wrote. “Doing so would, of course, help with social distancing.”
Lawyers for the accused will have to appear in person when possible, though some lawyers from outside the territory still find themselves subject to travel restrictions. The public and media can attend but will be subject to health screenings, will have to wear a face mask, use hand-sanitizer, and sit two metres apart.
Some proceedings are starting to take place in communities outside Yellowknife. For example, a sexual assault trial starts on Monday in Fort Smith.
Full information on all changes can be found on the Northwest Territories Courts website.
In Yellowknife, scheduling court appearances for all adults and youth who are in custody will be heard on Wednesdays at 9:30am by video in the regular courthouse. Lawyers may appear in person or remotely.
Sentencings will proceed by video link on scheduled dates.
Any Territorial Court trials, preliminary inquiries, or hearings for in-custody individuals that have not yet been set may now be scheduled in the ordinary course. All civil and family court matters may now be scheduled as usual. Wellness and DVTO court proceedings will recommence on July 16.
In the Supreme Court, jury trials are still on hold, while scheduling has resumed for pre-trial motions and judge-alone trials. Scheduling has also resumed for in-person sentencing hearings.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Louise Charbonneau stated that, in phase two of the NWT’s pandemic recovery plan, “holding jury trials continues to present significant challenges.”
“Jury trials would require an exemption from Chief Public Health Officer Dr Kami Kandola, as indoor gatherings of more than 25 people are not permitted,” stated Charbonneau.
“In addition, the courtrooms and deliberation rooms at the courthouses are not large enough to ensure adequate social distancing between jurors.”
Charbonneau stated she is in the process of determining whether other space is available to safely hold jury selection processes and jury trials in Yellowknife, Inuvik, Hay River, and Fort Smith.
As Cabin Radio previously reported, a large backlog of cases is building in most courts for accused both in custody and on bail.