Trial and error: Technical hiccup interrupts Supreme Court’s virtual hearing

Trial and error: Technical hiccup interrupts Supreme Court’s virtual hearing

OTTAWA — It seems even Canada’s top court isn’t immune to the digital gremlins that meddle with online meetings.

The Supreme Court of Canada plunged into the world of virtual video hearings Tuesday afternoon to keep the wheels of justice grinding during the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was a groundbreaking case of trial and error.

After some introductory remarks from Chief Justice Richard Wagner, the court heard from Stephen Hamilton, counsel for a firm involved in a contractual dispute over a British Columbia real-estate development.

Then Hamilton’s sound and video appeared to conk out, prompting a break to attend to the technical glitch.

The Supreme Court plans to hold four hearings this week via videoconference, keeping participants apart to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Wagner says while the pandemic has forced the high court to close its building to visitors for health and safety reasons, it hasn’t stopped the nine justices from doing their work.

The court has long embraced technology by livestreaming proceedings on its website.

However, the virtual hearings are unfolding much like an online business meeting, with 44 participants — including judges, lawyers, interpreters and observers — connecting through the internet on Tuesday.

The lawyers linked to the hearing from their offices.

All nine justices appeared in black robes with identical backgrounds that made it look as if they were surrounded by the Supreme Court’s polished wood finishes, red-leather chairs and ornate coat of arms.

At times, the judges flickered like avatars in a video game of legal thrust and parry, complete with the occasional Latin phrase.

They listened through headsets and, as usual, took turns peppering counsel with questions. Only, this time, judge and lawyer were separated not by mere metres, but hundreds of kilometres.

Lawyer Wes McMillan, representing a home owners’ association intervening in the case, made verbal arguments but could not be seen due to a lost video connection.

Appearing on behalf of respondent Crystal Square Parking Corp., lawyer Kenneth McEwan stood up from behind a desk, adjusted his camera and delivered submissions from a podium, more akin to a hearing in the courtroom.

As the proceedings began, Wagner thanked the parties and counsel involved Tuesday and those who would take part later in the week, saying he was grateful for their co-operation.

“We have had to make adjustments and learn new technologies.”

Wagner, who has tried to make the court’s work more accessible to the public, said it was important for people to be able to see proceedings.

“We have a strong open court system in Canada,” he said.

In recent years the Supreme Court has taken to social media, started issuing plain-language summaries of its decisions and even headed out on the road.

The court visited Winnipeg last September to hear two appeals and meet with Manitobans — the first time it has sat outside of Ottawa.

Wagner has mused that he would love to see the court hold hearings in different cities “from time to time.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 9, 2020.

—Follow @JimBronskill on Twitter

Jim Bronskill , The Canadian Press

Supreme Court

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