In the past six months, our lives have been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re all going through this experience together, but this has definitely taken its physical and emotional toll.
We have gotten sick or know someone who has. We have gone weeks or months at a time without seeing loved ones. Many of us have lost jobs or lost business. We’ve cancelled vacations and weddings this summer. We’ve had to completely change how we go about our social lives.
And yet, we are all trying to carry on. The civil justice system is trying to as well. For those in the practise of law, we’ve had to adapt.
So how has the practise of law been affected?
The pandemic has affected how lawyers communicate. In the spring, when office buildings were closed, lawyers needed to relocate. Many began to work from home. This affected how lawyers stay in touch with clients. Eliminating in-person meetings with clients was a big change. Videoconferences through Zoom and Skype became the norm.
For many, this was a welcome change: it was more convenient for clients not to have to come into a law office in the middle of the day. For clients who did not have a smartphone, webcam, and a reliable Internet connection, they had to resort to phone calls.
The courts have had to adapt as well. The B.C. Supreme Court courts were largely closed in April, May, and early June. For those who had trials scheduled in that period, they were forced to reschedule. This meant finding a new trial date that dragged their case longer by months, or even years.
Another aspect of the courts that have been affected were how trials were run. Jury trials were suspended for the summer. Instead, they were held before a judge instead. That jury-trial suspension extended into the fall. Recently, this has been further extended, to October 2021.
The courts are also now careful of how many people are allowed in their courtrooms. They are instructing lawyers to screen witnesses at trial for COVID-19 symptoms. In some circumstances, videoconferencing has become a way for witnesses to testify at trial. In contrast, the B.C. Court of Appeal, which is a higher level of court, can hold hearings over videoconferencing platforms now.
Setting aside trials, there have been other court proceedings that have undergone changes. Court hearings on procedural matters and summary trials (simple trials without witnesses) are now being held by telephone.
COVID-19 has also affected a range of legal cases. Personal-injury cases boil down to how a person’s injuries have affected their life, and so COVID-related job layoffs and medical-clinic closures are all relevant factors.
The pandemic has also resulted in broken business deals and leases, which will become commercial litigation cases. Some businesses have insurance coverage for lost revenue over COVID-related disruptions, so there are, potentially, insurance litigation cases. (I don’t practice family law, but I wonder whether family disputes that were simmering beforehand have boiled over as the pandemic wears on.)
Many of the changes that were made in the past six months promote convenience and reduce cost. These changes may stick around after the pandemic ends. Videoconferencing might become a popular option for client meetings and for legal procedures such as examinations and mediations. Videoconferencing may be used more frequently in the courts as well.
After the pandemic ends, the typical law firm may look a bit different too. Many legal professionals plan to work remotely for the foreseeable future, even if it’s on a semiregular basis. The idea of having giant offices now seems unnecessary, since they aren’t even used much nowadays. Looking ahead, law firms may decide to move into smaller spaces.
With a renewed emphasis on convenience and cost, the practise of law has made some big adjustments that seem to be here to stay. In a way, these changes were long overdue. It just took a global pandemic for them to get kicked into gear.
A word of caution: You should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or consult a lawyer.