The pandemic has put a stop to courtrooms packed with lawyers, media, victims and the public, waiting for the judge to issue a verdict in a high-profile case, but COVID-19 has ushered in a new era in Canadian justice – trial over video call – and some legal experts believe it could change the system for the better.
“Zoom and trials and how we’re accomplishing that — the system will never go back,” predicted Kim Schofield, a criminal defence lawyer.
Nearly 6,000 people watched a YouTube live stream as Justice Anne Molloy read her verdict in the Toronto van attack trial on Wednesday. It would’ve taken roughly 120 courtrooms filled to capacity to accommodate the thousands who watched the verdict.
“As a cornerstone of democracy…the openness of the court system has been left in the Dark Ages,” noted Schofield.
Prior to the pandemic, while defendants could appear from jail by video link, a fully online trial was out of the norm.
It is still forbidden to record or broadcast a court proceeding. However, there does appear to be a public appetite to watch the workings of the legal system.
Though thousands of people viewed the verdict yesterday, since the proceeding was only accessible with a direct link, others may not have been able to join.
“Judgments are important, rulings are important for the public to understand that justice is being served,” Schofield said.
In November 2020, more than 20,000 people watched online as off-duty Toronto police officer Michael Theriault was sentenced in Ontario Superior Court for assaulting Dafonte Miller.
That same month, the weeks-long van attack trial got underway virtually. Justice Molloy presided over the trial from her home, the media were granted access by a Zoom link and the public could watch on projector screens set up at the Metro Toronto Convention centre and a Front Street office tower.
Beyond the public, there are other parties to consider if virtual trials are to become the new normal. Namely victims and their families, who often find support and solidarity when coming together.
On Wednesday, they gathered inside the University Avenue courthouse to watch the live stream as the van attack killer received his verdict. Survivor Catherine Riddell attended with her niece.
“We really didn’t want to be alone, so when we got here and found all these people we were so grateful that we could share this moment with them,” she said.
Nick D’Amico, brother of victim Anne Marie D’Amico, noted that he appreciated he could watch court proceedings from home with the support of his family, but said it shaped how he viewed the trial.
“We missed out on the experience of being in the courtroom and feeling as anyone would feel as they were going through the situation,” he explained.
A virtual trial may also be more cost effective for defendants, because their lawyers could avoid billing them for the hours spent waiting at a courthouse for their cases to be called.
The magnitude of the van attack trial made it a compelling virtual trial test. Every day, the court’s technical and support staff navigated the needs of witnesses, along with their presentations, and then examination by prosecutors and defence.
After the verdict was delivered, both sides said they were pleased with how smoothly the trial rolled out.
Crown prosecutor Joseph Callaghan thanked court staff for ensuring the justice system could be transparent during the pandemic.
Boris Bytensky, lawyer for the defence, said he didn’t think the trial would have turned out any differently for his client had it been in person, despite the occasional technical glitch.
“I am a convert to Zoom, I thought that the technology worked great,” said Bytensky. “It proved that we could do a serious cases over zoom.”