Impact of COVID-19 on Canadian courts and litigation deadlines

La version française de cette communication est publiée ici.

Note: This article has been updated since it was first published on April 3. It is current as of April 9, 2020. 

Courts across Canada have limited their operations, and access to the court system, in order to help contain the spread of COVID-19 and protect the health and safety of court users and staff. Filing deadlines (and, in two provinces, limitation periods) have also been suspended or modified. This bulletin provides an overview of changes to court services, filing deadlines, and limitation periods in respect of civil matters in Ontario, Québec, British Columbia, Alberta, and the federal courts.

Because of the evolving nature of the COVID-19 crisis, the courts have been adding new measures and revising existing ones in real time. Organizations should check for the latest information for the applicable court before taking steps in a court proceeding.

Ontario

Access to courts

Like most other courts across Canada, the Ontario Superior Court and Court of Appeal have temporarily suspended normal operations. All matters in the Superior Court throughout the province that were scheduled to be heard after March 17 have been adjourned until further notice, even if the hearings were scheduled to be heard by videoconference or telephone. The same is true for Ontario tribunals, including the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal, Landlord and Tenant Board and Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

The Superior Courts remain open for “time sensitive and urgent” matters. What qualifies as time sensitive and urgent is still being determined and will develop over the coming days and weeks. The Court has stated that for civil matters, at minimum, urgent cases are those where “immediate and significant financial repercussions may result if there is no judicial hearing.” Judges retain the discretion to determine whether any particular case is necessary and appropriate to hear on an urgent basis.

On April 6, the Superior Courts began to hear other matters remotely, including pre-trial conferences, select motions (including class certification motions in Toronto), and Divisional Court matters. The courts will use teleconference or videoconference technology, where available, to conduct hearings remotely. The Chief Justice of the Superior Court has stated that every effort will be made to permit members of the public and the media to observe matters being heard remotely, though it remains to be seen how this will work in practice.

The Court of Appeal suspended all scheduled appeals through April 3, though has continued to hear urgent appeals. The Court has stated that parties with matters scheduled from April 3 through to April 30 should consider and consent to adjournments. The Court has stated that no in-person hearings will be conducted during the emergency. Hearings will occur either remotely via video or teleconference or in writing.

With respect to filings, registries at the Superior Court and the Court of Appeal are closed for in-person filings. The courts are now temporarily accepting filings over email. Statements of claim can be issued online. For matters in the Superior Court that require affidavits, the Superior Court’s March 15 Notice to the Profession states that an unsworn affidavit may be provided if the affiant is able to participate in the hearing. The Law Society of Ontario has stated that, at least on a temporary basis during the state of emergency, it will interpret the legal requirements for being present to commission an affidavit to allow for “remote commissioning” through means such as video conferencing. 

Filing deadlines and limitation periods

Following the declaration of a state of emergency in Ontario, the Government of Ontario issued an order suspending the operation of any provision of a statute, regulation or rule that sets out either a limitation period, or the time within which a step must be taken in a proceeding before a court, tribunal or other decision-making body. The suspension is in effect until the state of emergency is lifted and is retroactive to March 16. This means that the time limits that usually apply to commencing claims or to filing documents with courts or tribunals are paused (unless there are procedural deadlines that have been imposed by court order, which remain unaffected by the order). The Court of Appeal has issued a practice direction stating that the time periods for filings in the Court of Appeal are suspended until further notice, except for urgent family-law matters and matters that have already been scheduled for a hearing and not adjourned.

Québec

Access to courts

The Government of Québec declared a public health emergency on March 13, 2020. This grants the Government a broad set of civil and administrative powers. The Government has used these powers to adopt a series of measures affecting the justice system.

As a result, courthouses are closed to the public and are restricted to those persons whose presence is necessary.

Court of Appeal hearings scheduled until May 15, 2020 have been postponed. Urgent matters may be heard at the discretion of the Court.

Hearings before the Superior Court of Québec and the Court of Québec are limited to urgent applications, until further notice. All non-urgent trials on the merits scheduled until May 29, 2020, at the earliest, have been adjourned indefinitely.

Urgent civil applications before the Superior Court of Québec and the Court of Québec (including, among other things, applications for provisional injunctions, safeguard orders and all other matters judged urgent by the Court) will proceed without being open to the public. Telephone conferences and video conferences are preferred to allow urgent hearings to proceed remotely. For the first time, a Superior Court trial on the merits was held entirely by videoconference in late March.

Each judicial district has adopted its own directives for dealing with the crisis. In the District of Montréal, parties with scheduled preliminary matters and incidental proceedings are invited to communicate with the Court prior to the hearing, and if parties have not been heard from, applications will be adjourned indefinitely.

Insolvency matters and other matters pending before the Commercial Division of the Superior Court in the District of Montréal will be heard on a case-by-case basis at the discretion of the Court, and by telephone only.

Filing deadlines and limitation periods

In-person filings at the Court of Appeal are still being accepted, but the Court urges parties to delay non-urgent filings. Parties who consider a matter to be urgent are asked to contact the Court office by email or fax. If the Court considers the situation urgent, the Court office will contact the parties to schedule the hearing either in person or using technology. The Court of Appeal has accelerated its pilot project regarding the electronic filing of notices of appeal in civil matters, and on April 9, 2020, opened its digital Court office, which allows parties to digitally file notices of appeal, as well as proofs of service and notification, in civil matters which may be appealed as of right. Parties are strongly encouraged to use e-filing in these cases.

Superior Court of Québec and Court of Québec court offices remain open for the filing of urgent proceedings. Parties are strongly encouraged to file non-urgent proceedings by mail.

On March 15, 2020, the Chief Justice of Québec and the Québec Minister of Justice jointly exercised the emergency powers conferred on them by the Code of Civil Procedure to suspend certain prescription periods (limitation periods) and procedural deadlines. This is the first time these powers have been used.

The order suspends all extinctive prescription periods (limitation periods), periods of forfeiture of rights and civil procedural deadlines (except for urgent matters) until the public health emergency is lifted, unless otherwise ordered by the Chief Justice of Québec and the Québec Minister of Justice.

Unless otherwise decreed, limitation periods and filing deadlines for prescription, forfeiture and civil procedure will be extended by the number of days of the suspension. Once the suspension is lifted, parties should be extra cautious in computing limitation periods and filing deadlines, so as not to miss a critical deadline.

British Columbia

Access to courts

Until further notice, regular operations of the Supreme Court of British Columbia are suspended. All civil and family matters are adjourned until May 1, 2020, unless the Court directs otherwise. The Court has stated it will provide future direction with respect to hearings scheduled after May 1, but has not done so yet.

The Supreme Court has made an exception for hearings for “essential and urgent matters.” The Court has provided a specific list of what matters qualify as “essential and urgent”, which include urgent injunction applications and preservation orders. The Court retains the discretion to hear urgent matters other than those listed, as well as to decline to hear a matter in a listed category.

As of March 25, 2020, the Supreme Court registry is no longer providing in-person registry services, though e-filing is permitted.

The Court of Appeal for British Columbia is similarly limiting its operations until further notice. All appeal hearings, chambers applications and other matters currently scheduled before May are adjourned unless designated by the Chief Justice as matters that must proceed. Matters that are proceeding will generally be heard remotely by teleconference or in writing. 

The Court of Appeal registry continues to accept filings electronically, by fax, or by mail.

For matters requiring affidavits, the Court of Appeal for British Columbia and the Supreme Court of British Columbia have made accommodations for the commissioning of affidavits remotely using video technology where it is not possible or is medically unsafe for the deponent to attend before a commissioner (such as where deponents are required to self-quarantine).

Filing deadlines and limitation periods

Filing deadlines under the Supreme Court Civil Rules and the Supreme Court Family Rules are suspended until May 1, 2020. The Government of British Columbia has issued an order suspending every limitation period and any other time period under B.C. law within which a civil or proceeding or appeal must be commenced in the B.C. courts. The order is retroactive to March 18, 2020. The order also permits tribunals to waive, suspend or extend time periods related to their functions.

The Supreme Court of British Columbia has confirmed it will entertain applications requesting an extension of time for statutory deadlines set out in other statutes. The Court will decide such applications on a case-by-case basis, and will not hear any such applications until court operations resume.

In contrast, the Court of Appeal has directed that parties should continue to file and serve notices of appeal or applications for leave to appeal within required time periods. However, once notices of appeal or applications for leave to appeal have been served and filed, all subsequent filing and service deadlines are suspended and will start to run again beginning May 4, 2020, unless otherwise directed. The filing and service deadlines for all existing appeals, applications for leave to appeal, or other matters before the Court are suspended and will start to run again beginning on May 4, except for those matters designated as matters that must proceed, or as otherwise directed.

Alberta

Access to courts

Sittings of the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench are currently limited to emergency or urgent matters. Emergency or urgent matters are those “in which serious consequences to persons or harm to property may arise if the hearing does not proceed, or if there is a risk of loss of jurisdiction or expiration of an existing protection or restraining order.”  All civil matters scheduled for hearing between March 16, 2020 and May 1, 2020 have been adjourned indefinitely, unless otherwise directed by the Court.

Other urgent matters that do not rise to the level of priority mentioned above, but that nonetheless must proceed in a timely way, can be heard with the prior approval of a Justice or Master. These matters may include (but are not limited to) urgent or time sensitive commercial matters, where there are immediate and significant financial consequences which may result if there is no judicial hearing.

The Alberta Court of Appeal continues to hear appeals, applications and motions. However, as of March 23, 2020, these are no longer being held in person. The Court of Appeal has published a protocol providing for hearings to be held by video or teleconference, or the parties can opt to have the appeal heard on the basis of the written materials alone.

The Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench issued a Notice to the Profession on March 25 advising that remote commissioning of affidavits would be permitted and setting out a specific process that must be followed before such affidavits will be permitted to be filed. The Alberta Court of Appeal has also adopted this practice.

Limitation periods and filing deadlines

On March 30, 2020, the Government of Alberta suspended various limitation periods until June 1, 2020, through a Ministerial Order. The suspension is retroactive to March 17. The Order is specific as to the statutes affected, so care should be taken to ensure that a potentially applicable limitation period has been suspended.

The Ministerial Order also suspends time periods for taking procedural steps in any proceeding for the same period of time, though this is subject to the discretion of the court or tribunal. It is not yet clear how the Ministerial Order, which suspends procedural time periods until June 1, interacts with the guidance previously provided by the Court of Queen’s Bench, which suspended procedural timelines until May 1.

Clerk offices at all Court of Queen’s Bench locations are still open to accept filings. However, access to Court locations is limited to certain individuals including parties to the litigation, counsel, witnesses and others. The Court is urging lawyers to make use of the expended access to email and fax filing in order to lessen the number of people at the courthouse.

The Court of Appeal had previously advised that filing deadlines for the Alberta Court of Appeal remain largely in effect, unless a deadline for a matter that had not yet been scheduled for a hearing falls before May 4 in which case it would be extended for two months. The Court had also stated that filing deadlines for commencement documents continued to apply. It remains to be seen how this guidance interacts with the suspensions in the Ministerial Order.

Federal Courts

Access to courts

The Federal Court and Federal Court of Appeal have suspended operations except for urgent matters. All Federal Court hearings scheduled through to May 15 have been adjourned, though case management hearings and certain other matters are being dealt with by telephone or video conference. Like the other courts, the Federal Court remains available for urgent matters, which includes those matters “where hardship or substantial financial consequences are likely to result from delay.” Those hearings are likely to take place by teleconference. The Federal Court of Appeal has likewise adjourned all matters scheduled to be heard before May 15. Filings are being accepted by email during this period.

Filing deadlines and limitation periods

The Federal Court issued a revised practice direction on April 4 suspending the operation of all timelines under the court rules and in any court order until May 15. The Federal Court of Appeal has suspended its filing deadlines until May 15. However, these suspensions do not apply to statutory deadlines for commencing actions, applications, judicial reviews, or appeals.

Read all our coronavirus-related updates on our COVID-19 guidance for organizations resource page.

To discuss these issues, please contact the author(s).

This publication is a general discussion of certain legal and related developments and should not be relied upon as legal advice. If you require legal advice, we would be pleased to discuss the issues in this publication with you, in the context of your particular circumstances.

For permission to republish this or any other publication, contact Janelle Weed.

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