“My child support case is supposed to be heard in Provincial Court very soon. But with so many things being disrupted by the pandemic, I don’t know if my hearing is still going to happen. Will it be postponed?"
– Rae, Coquitlam
Can I get in legal trouble if I don’t practice “social distancing?”
The guidance from authorities to stay close to home and to keep two metres apart from others is strong advice, not the law. Some of the social distancing rules do have the force of law, however.
The province’s public health orders are examples. The most recent ones include orders restricting social gatherings, requiring masks in many settings, and spelling out rules for restaurants and pubs. The latter order details how establishments must keep two metres between groups of patrons and get contact information for one member of every group (among other measures).
The province is starting to crack down on rule violations. Police and provincial bylaw officers can issue $2,000 tickets to event organizers and restaurants and pubs that break the rules. Authorities can also give ~$200 tickets to people not following mask wearing requirements or the rules at gatherings or in businesses during the pandemic.
Another rule that has severe penalties if you don’t follow it: If you’ve just returned to Canada from abroad, you must isolate or quarantine, depending on if you have symptoms. (The federal government website explains the difference.) You can be fined or jailed for failing to follow this order.
Is the courthouse open? If I have a case coming up, will it be postponed?
After being closed early in the pandemic, courts in British Columbia resumed operations in mid-2020, with extensive new protocols in place. For Provincial Court matters, please consult their notice. Notices have also been issued by the Supreme Court and Appeals Court.
What if I’m running out of time to file a claim?
Early in the pandemic, the province issued an order suspending all limitation periods and time periods for starting a claim or bringing an appeal in a civil or family court matter. (There's an exception for builders' liens claims.) The suspension will continue until March 25, 2021. This will result in the suspension having been in place for exactly one year. To be clear: on March 25, 2021, the suspension of limitation periods will end. If you're contemplating a court action or appeal in a civil or family matter, file your paperwork now.
For matters before tribunals (as distinct from courts), each tribunal can decide whether to suspend time periods. Check with the tribunal that is in play for your situation.
Are law offices open for business?
The provincial government designated legal services and the work of lawyers, notaries, and paralegals to be essential services. Their offices can remain open, but they must follow the orders and guidance of the provincial health authorities. Like other workplaces, they must post a COVID-19 safety plan.
What about legal aid?
Legal Aid BC continues to provide legal aid services, but by phone only. If you live in a community where there is a local agent, call the agent's office to apply for legal aid. Legal Aid BC’s online services remain open, such as the LiveHelp chat service on their Family Law website.
Can I still access low-cost or free legal services?
Yes, but they are adapting their services at this time. Access Pro Bono ramped up their telephone advice service. CLAS continues to provide assistance to eligible clients, but the logistics have changed.
Some providers have launched new services to respond to the crisis. For example, Mediate BC is offering a "low-bono" online mediation program that helps people resolve conflicts that stem from the pandemic.