Font size:

From the OJEN Blog

Virtual Court Visits Happen in Hamilton

OJEN’s flagship justice education initiative, the Courtroom Visit program, brings the law to life for high school classes throughout the province.  Each year thousands of students visit courthouses in their communities to see the justice system in action.  In many cases, they have the opportunity to speak to a judge, lawyer, or court staff to learn more about the proceedings they observe or about the justice system generally.

With the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, most court proceedings shifted to an online platform.  At the same time, in-person school field trips were put on hold. Courthouse visits came to an abrupt end.

Now, a year into the pandemic, teleconferencing has become the “new normal” and in some regions, courthouses are starting to open their virtual doors to welcome students to online court visits. The Hamilton OJEN committee has been successfully facilitating virtual court visits since the fall of 2020. With the support of several dedicated committee volunteers, they have established a simple process that works well for their region.

School board representatives from both of the major school boards in the district sit on the committee. Each representative emails the law teachers in their school board with available dates on which students can observe court proceedings.  They are asked to respond with preferred dates and whether they would like a judge or articling student to speak to their students.  The lists from both boards are compiled and forwarded to the Crown representative on the committee. She consults with the trial coordinator to book classes to observe either a trial or a guilty plea. Only one class is booked per day. Teachers are contacted and their court visit dates confirmed.  The day before their visit, they are emailed the Zoom link.

Patricia Valeri-Tortis is a teacher with the Hamilton Wentworth Catholic District School Board (HWCDSB) as well as the co-chair of the Hamilton OJEN committee. She has been taking her students on virtual court visits since September. Ideally, she joins the court session herself by Zoom and shares her computer screen with her students. This way, she controls the screen and only one box with her name on it appears in the virtual courtroom.  When students join individually, the multiple boxes make the screen very busy for the judge and lawyers. “The first time it happened,” she recalled, “one of the Defence counsel was confused because he was not used to seeing so many people on the Zoom call!”

Sharing her screen with her class is not always possible. With the limitations of technology and bandwidth issues, it is sometimes necessary for students to join individually. When this occurs, the court clerk explains the Zoom protocols at the beginning of the virtual proceedings, including that the chat feature is to be used only by the lawyers and that taking photos is not permitted.

With so many student activities canceled this year, Ms. Valeri-Tortis says she is glad to be able to offer her students a window into the courtroom. It has been interesting to see what criminal proceedings are like during the pandemic.

“In the fall we observed virtual guilty pleas and it was very different seeing the judge and Crown counsel online along with the court clerk. The defence lawyers would join and we were able to see them as well as the accused from the Barton Street Jail. When the accused joined from the jail, it was very noisy with everything in the background that could be heard online.”

Virtual court visits have been a great success in Hamilton.  Students are very engaged and judges have been generous about remaining online after the conclusion of the proceeding to answer their questions. Until we are able to participate in in-person activities safely, virtual court visits are an excellent option for high school students to observe the justice system in action.

Keep up-to-date with news from OJEN!

OJEN has cleaned its email list in accordance with CASL legislation. If you used to receive our publications, please enter your email address into the box below to check if you are still subscribed.

Your address was not found on our list.

You are already subscribed to OJEN’s newsletter, thank you.