Changes to Civil Procedure and Administration in Light of COVID-19

The word “unprecedented” has taken on a new meaning in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the measures taken by the Provincial government, the bar and the bench to navigate this global pandemic.

This public health emergency has caused the Ontario government to take significant steps that impact civil proceedings in Ontario and our Courts and Court administrators are responding in most difficult circumstances. This bulletin provides a synopsis with some of the major changes that have been implemented and some of the ways that the Courts and administration have admirably responded.

On March 15, 2020, Chief Justice Geoffrey Morawetz of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice made available a “Notice to the Profession, the Public and the Media Regarding Civil and Family Proceedings” by which the Chief Justice advised of the suspension of regular operations effective March 17, 2020 until further notice. All criminal, family and civil matters scheduled to be heard on or after Tuesday March 17, 2020 were adjourned. Acknowledging its role in our constitutional democracy, the Superior Court will continue to hear urgent matters during this emergency period. The Notice provided some guidance as to what type of matters will be considered “urgent” during the emergency period, and advised the Bar and the public that these matters would be strictly limited. The Notice also provided a procedure to bring an urgent matter before the Court. The duration of the suspension of regular operations is currently not determined, however, the Courts have considered that in the future there will be an administrative “Return to Operations” Court implemented to resume regular operations in an orderly way.

A complete copy of the Superior Court of Justice’s Notice to the Profession, the Public and the Media Regarding Civil and Family Proceedings can be found here.

On March 20, 2020, the Ontario government exercised its power under section 7.1(2) of the Emergency Management and Civil Protection Act to Order Ontario Regulation 2020.0160.e, which suspended (a) any provision of any statute, regulation, rule, by-law or Order of the Ontario government that establishes any limitation period, and (b) any provision of any statute, regulation, rule, by-law or Order of the Ontario government that establishes any period of time within which any step must be taken in any proceeding in Ontario, subject to the discretion of the Court. The first element of the Regulation is rather straightforward, that limitation periods for the commencement of proceedings are suspended. However the second element has several noteworthy aspects. First, it is only deadlines in the legislation of Ontario that are suspended, not deadlines in federal or extra-provincial legislation. Second, it is only deadlines to take steps “in any proceeding” that are suspended, not all deadlines set out in legislation. Third, the suspension of deadlines is at the discretion of the court, tribunal or decision-maker responsible for the proceeding.

A complete copy of the Regulation can be found here.

Among many other changes, there have necessarily been changes to the administrative operations at Courthouses throughout Ontario. This situation remains fluid at this time as the Courts and their administrative personnel attempt to address the unique situation. One measure that has recently been implemented is the expansion of the Civil Claims Online Service to enable lawyers and litigants to issue and file Court documents while Court counter services are reduced to protect the health and safety of the public. As a result, parties in litigation are now able to file Jury Notices, Defences to Crossclaims, Defences to Counterclaims, Notices of Discontinuance and other documents via the Civil Claims Online portal.

A copy of the Ministry of the Attorney General’s Notice to the Legal Profession regarding the Civil Claims Online service can be found here.

Naturally, matters of civil procedure and administration are changing by the day and there is no central repository for this information. Please speak with your legal advisor for updates on how these changes affect any current or intended litigation matters that may concern you.

For more information about dealing with COVID-19, please visit our COVID-19 Resource Center.