In the wake of the pandemic, the formation and implementation of virtual courts occurred very quickly, providing people with alternative options for court proceedings. However, not everyone can access this option, and navigating the digital sphere of highly technical courtroom procedures can be difficult. To address the issue and assist the people accessing virtual courts, the John Howard Society Kingston & District (JHSKD) has introduced a program, the Court Access and Outreach Program, that aims to reduce barriers created by virtual court systems for those with limited or no access to the internet or devices.
The JHSKD is a non-profit organization committed to providing and developing a wide range of community-based services that address crime and its causes. Their services include prevention and intervention services, as well as advocacy and public education.
Funding for the program was received from the United Way and the City of Kingston’s Community Investment Fund. The funding will be used to support part-time staff and assist with purchasing technology for the Court Access and Outreach Program.
“This program will support people who are in conflict with the law with accessing the virtual court system,” said Julie Langan, Executive Director John Howard Society.
Langan also mentioned that due to barriers navigating the virtual courts, more people are being charged with administrative justice charges (failing to attend court), putting them at risk of a custodial sentence.
“People who are trying to navigate the court system for the first time need support on how to get a lawyer, explaining conditions of release, reminding them about their court dates, and getting referrals to various agencies and social services to address the reasons they have come in conflict with the law. Clients will be able to come to our office at 771 Montreal St to use our internet and computers to access the virtual courts and get assistance understanding the process,” said Langan.
The organization received $25,000 for staffing and technology to support this program from Aug. 1, 2021, through Dec. 31, 2022.
“Our staff is in court daily, and we see a growing need for court support. Since COVID, many people who have never been involved in the criminal justice system before need help navigating the court system and the complexities of virtual courts,” said Team Lead of Bail, Emma Kuranowicz-Vyse.
Recently, Canada’s Chief Justice also said that the Supreme court will continue with the virtual hearings beyond the pandemic if the participating parties agree. For this reason, JHSKD said, it becomes even more important to assist people with the need to attend virtual court hearings, understand their charges and address the systemic reasons for criminal involvement, such as housing, food security, addictions, and mental health.
“Programs like this work towards making a safer community for everyone and address the equity issues in the court system; to ensure that lack of internet, phones or computers does not result in jail time,” said Langan.