Anyone using court services in B.C. will have noticed several changes due to COVID-19 pandemic precautions.
In Williams Lake, the BC Sheriff Service has a checkpoint station outside the courthouse building.
It’s all part of the Ministry of Attorney General’s plan to keep services going while the provincial state of emergency remains in place, said Staff Sgt. Andy Abenthung, who has been in his position with the BC Sheriff Services in Williams Lake since the end of March.
Courts did continue to hear urgent matters through the pandemic, with judges determining which files needed to be dealt with, he explained and since June 8, both the superior courts and the provincial courts have been gradually increasing operations and in-person attendance at locations across the province.
Sometimes people have appeared by phone or video conferencing and often court documents have been filed online.
In-custody appearances are done remotely away from the courthouse, he confirmed, noting if they have a prisoner across the street in the RCMP detachment cells, one of the sheriffs goes over and sets up a camera for the prisoners to connect with the courtroom.
Abenthung said a professional company was hired by the ministry to assess all courthouse facilities across the province to determine health and safety requirements and make recommendations.
The work is continuing and just last week the sheriffs’ offices in Williams Lake received Plexiglass dividers.
In addition to the Williams Lake courthouse there is a circuit court in 100 Mile House, which is already operational. Anahim Lake also has circuit court that is normally used four times a year and for three days each time.
Enhanced cleaning, modified courthouse layouts, physical distancing protocols and verbal health screening prior to entering the building are part of the new routine.
People entering the building, which also houses other services such as Interior Health and Service BC, are being screened for visible signs of illness and asked questions at the checkpoint.
If the visit is court-related then the sheriffs will ask more questions about possible COVID exposure or symptoms.
After each court appearance, every surface is wiped down by people who have been hired to clean throughout the day.
“They are sweeping through the entire building, wiping down the public telephone, stairwells, all the door knobs, windows and everything,” Abenthung said.
The courtroom stands down for five minutes after each file and areas that were used are wiped down.
Personal protection equipment is also provided for public use, and the number of people allowed in one courtroom at a time has been drastically reduced.
The biggest courtroom in Williams Lake, for example, can only have eight people inside at once under the restrictions, and that includes the judge, clerk, sheriff and lawyers.
“Unfortunately quite often we have to tell family members there is no room for them in a courtroom,” Abenthung said.
Each courthouse in B.C. is different, and so far the public’s response has been ‘very understanding,’ he added.
Some people might ask why there is a checkpoint but once a sheriff explains that it is part of the COVID response they are appreciative and no one has complained, he said.
Due to a backlog of files, and wanting to minimize the number of in-person appearances to stop the spread of the virus, provincial court registries are now accepting all filing by mail, e-mail, fax-to-fax or using the court services online where available.
To protect the health of all court users and contain the spread of COVID-19 while maintaining access to the court, the public is encouraged to use remote filing options, although if necessary people can still file in person, Abenthung confirmed.