As with every other segment of society, the legal profession, and the justice system as a whole, have taken some fierce body blows this year, courtesy of everyone’s least-favourite virus.
Even though law firms were designated as an essential service from the earliest days of the pandemic, many law firms shut their doors for an extended period, opting to follow the lead of the courts,who tightly closed their doors completely, throwing court lists into a shambles. While most firms, including our own, quickly figured it out, and made the necessary changes to enable them to re-open safely, relying on physical distancing, deep cleaning, and lots and lots of masks, plexiglass and disinfectant wipes,the court system largely failed in its attempt to maintain adequate service levels.
Hobbled by many years of under-spending on technology, and an attitude of complacency, the courts could do little except to adjourn everything on their dockets, and suspend the running of limitation periods. Court waiting lists ballooned, and the processing time for routine court documents, such as grants of probate, and divorce orders became, and remain, interminable.
The only bright spot on the court landscape remained our newest court, the Civil Resolution Tribunal, which as a completely online court, utilizing modern technology, was able to continue to function without interruption, Unfortunately it’s mandate is quite limited, so its impact on the overall chaos of the courts has been quite small.
2020 was the year that the Attorney General finally admitted that the court system could no longer cope with the huge volume of auto accident cases it receives, and that ICBC was drowning under the weight of its legal bills to defend them. Legislation was passed to deny the public the right to claim compensation for their auto injury related losses in court. Presumably, once the current crop of cases now in the system are dealt with, court waiting lists should shrink dramatically, but perversely, this year instead saw a ‘pig in the python’ phenomenon, as an energetic personal injury bar, on the cusp of unemployment, scurried to hustle as many personal injury cases as they could ,and to get them into the court system before the advent of ‘no-fault’.
Personal injury law has always been a large and lucrative segment of the legal industry, so another singular feature of this year has been the spectacle of many hundreds of personal injury lawyers struggling to re-invent themselves. The billboards are being re-papered and the TV ads re-scripted,to tout wrongful dismissal employment cases, denied disability insurance claims, and contested wills and estates. One wonders whether the volume of litigation will actually decline or whether only the mix of cases will change. The Feds must think the case volume will be on the wane, since again in 2020 they didn’t get around to replenishing the Supreme Court bench, which is constantly shrinking due to natural attrition. We end the year pretty much where we began, with 4 vacancies on the 90 judge roster, and no apparent thought to any increase in the roster to account for our growing population, or the growing length of cases.
One wonders then, how the brand new Abbotsford courthouse, now partially open, is to be staffed? When in full swing in January it will boast 14 new court rooms , but no new judges to preside in them. At least its a sharp looking building !
There were judicial appointments made this year, to be sure, and one of them deserves special mention. Madame Justice Ardith Walpetko We’dalx Walkem became the first indigenous woman to be appointed to the Supreme court of British Columbia. The long overdue appointment, made just before Christmas, has been widely heralded. and comes at a time when the courts and the profession are starting to come to terms with the implications for the legal system of this years; adoption by BC of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People. Anticipating that the Declaration is going to become an increasingly important component of the system, in 2021 all practicing BC lawyers are being required to undergo 6 hours of cultural sensitivity training, to become better acquainted with indigenous issues.
The times, they are a’changin’ rapidly in other quarters of the legal profession as well. Readers of last years’ year end review will recall the controversy that surrounded the Law Society’s half- baked idea to open up family law proceedings to lightly trained para-legals, based on the wooly logic that they would work cheaper than lawyers, and that would drive down the cost of litigating a family dispute. There ensued a lively debate at the Law Society’s AGM, culminating in the membership decisively passing a resolution instructing the Benchers to smarten up and shelve the idea of licencing family para-legals to play lawyer.
The Benchers of the Law Society, however, are a crafty bunch, and don’t take kindly to being bitch-slapped by the membership, so this years iteration of the paralegal debate had the Law Society creating an “Innovation Sandbox”. The Society is now actively soliciting submissions from non-lawyers who want to create and operate pilot projects within the ‘Sandbox’ to offer cheaper legal services from non-lawyers in direct competition to fully trained lawyers.The Benchers are being coy about how the ‘sandbox’ will actually work, or what sorts of submissions have been received ( or whether those pesky family para-legals have snuck onto the list)
So, all in all , a very interesting year in the profession!
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