“My child support case is supposed to be heard in Provincial Court very soon. But with so many things closing down to fight the spread of the virus, 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. These include an order prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 people, and an order requiring restaurants and pubs to take measures to physically distance groups of patrons. The latter order spells out how establishments must keep two metres between groups of patrons and get contact information for one member of every group (among other measures).
So far, in guidance to its bylaw officers, the province is focusing their efforts on monitoring and education. The officers (and police) are not empowered to fine or detain people in enforcing these orders. Vancouver’s bylaw officers are similarly focused on monitoring and educating to date.
One rule has more 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?
What if I’m running out of time to file a claim?
The province has 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 continues until the state of emergency regarding the coronavirus ends.
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 is ramping up their telephone advice service. CLAS continues to provide assistance to eligible clients, but the logistics have changed. PovNet is tracking service changes for advocates province-wide.
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.