Ontario Family Courts are Opening Their Doors Again… Plus CaseLines!
There’s no mistake: In the wake of what we hope is the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ontario Family Court system is getting back to business – and is starting to open up to litigants, their lawyers, witnesses, and other key participants for in-person attendances once again.
In various recent announcements issued by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice – which hears matters pertaining to divorce and the division of marital property – there’s been official confirmation that the courtroom doors are starting to open again for certain in-person hearings. A Notice to the Profession advises that effective November 29, 2021, court attendances for specified types of proceedings (including Family trials and long motions, and appearances for settlement conferences) can now take place in-person, unless the court orders otherwise.
According to that latest update, alternative arrangements for “hybrid” appearances involving some combination of in-person and teleconference appearances can still be explored. They can be requested by a lawyer, litigant, or witness if he or she is still not comfortable attending in-person at the courthouse. (However, any discomfort around such in-person attendance, and options for hybrid or teleconference appearances, should ideally be discussed in advance of the scheduled hearing or event).
This news about the Superior Courts’ re-opening echoes the recent November 12, 2021 announcement by the Ontario Court of Justice (which can hear child protection, adoption, custody, access, child support, and spousal support matters). Those courts are gearing up for their own increased level of in-person hearings as well, as is the Ontario Court of Appeal, which issued detailed Practice Directions around an orderly transition back.
With that said, this does not mean that there has been a full-scale, overnight resumption of regular operations to the pre-pandemic style. Until the COVID-19 virus and its variants are fully under control, for the foreseeable future there will still be a need to take advantage of technology-based access points like Zoom teleconferencing and online filings. This is confirmed in that current notice from the Ontario Court of Justice, for example, which states that “the Court will continue to use remote proceedings, in-person appearances or a combination of remote and in-person appearances.”
That might actually be good news, because the pandemic-prompted reliance on technology actually has many pluses, and there has been a continued focus on more efficient ways of doing things. Indeed, the entire Ontario Family Courts justice system has found a “silver lining”, since the pandemic lockdowns forced it to move away from an arguably-archaic all-paper-based system, towards a modern online document-filing model.
And that online filing system will get even better soon, since it’s being augmented with the rollout of a province-wide pilot project that sees the Ontario Superior Court of Justice installing “CaseLines”, a cloud-based, electronic document storage-and-sharing platform.
For certain judge-selected cases/matters, CaseLines allows the participants (meaning the parties, their lawyers, and the courts) to access each other’s materials before and during a court hearing. It’s not the same as filing documents with the court; what is does is to allow already-filed documents and court-related materials to be shared by those involved via the cloud.
The Ontario Court of Justice is also scheduled to get on-board with CaseLines soon; the gradual rollout schedule sees the first installation going live on December 13, 2021 in one Toronto court location, with additional Family Courts being added in the early part of 2022.
Looks like things are getting back to normal – and probably even better than normal.