19 January 2013

Supreme Court Announces Assize Project in Vancouver

Chief Justice Bauman has announced (PDF) the implementation of a pilot project to test an assize scheduling system for long civil chambers applications in the Supreme Court's Vancouver registry. The pilot project began on 7 January 2013. The pilot project is only available for cases that do not involve criminal law, family law or judicial reviews.

Chambers Applications

Every court day, masters and justices hear applications in chambers. Applications are requests for orders, usually temporary or short-term orders, that are made using affidavit evidence and are expected to take a relatively short time to hear, anywhere from five minutes to two days. Chambers is the courtroom where applications are heard.

Normally, someone who wants to make an application will just pick the court day that the application will be heard. Although some days are predictably busier than others, things usually work out pretty well; most of the time, there's enough time to at least get the shorter chambers applications heard. However, when an application is going to take a half an hour or more to be heard, things can get pretty hairy.

There are only four and a half hours in the normal court day. (Court starts at 10:00 and runs to the lunch break at 12:30, with a fifteen minute recess partway through. Court resumes at 2:00 and runs until 4:00, with another fifteen minute recess.) This is not a lot of time. Applications of less than an hour routinely chew through all of the morning, leaving a handful of applications left that might take half an hour, a whole hour or two hours to be heard. As a result, these longer applications often get bumped to another day. I never count on a two-hour application being heard in Vancouver on the day it's scheduled, and it's only an even chance than a one-hour application will go ahead. The situation is worse in New Westminster.

This is not the problem the new pilot project is meant to address.

When an application will take two hours or longer, the rules of court require that the application be scheduled with the court's trial coordinator. In theory this means that each application is assigned to a judge who will be free that day and has the time to hear it. In reality, some applications are assigned to a judge and others wind up being listed on the dreaded overflow list.

Being on the overflow list is not good. A judge may become available to hear your application that day or a judge may not; either way, you wind up cooling your heels in the registry for at least an hour or two on the off-chance that you'll be lucky enough to land a judge before giving up and going back to the office.

This is the problem the new pilot project is meant to address.

The Assize Project

An assize system is a way of scheduling hearings which works in blocks of one or two weeks. If someone wants an application to be heard, all they get to pick is the assize period in which it might be heard. At the beginning of the period, a judge or the trial coordinator will triage all the applications set for that period and sort them from most important to least important, with the most important applications getting priority and going first. Applications that can't be scheduled wait to see what happens with the other applications being heard in that period; if an application gets done faster than expected or is adjourned, the unscheduled application next in priority gets heard.

In theory, this is a more flexible way of using judicial time which accommodates applications that unexpectedly collapse, allows every hour a judge is available to be occupied with an application, and therefore gets more applications heard in the same amount of time.

However, as the announcement from the Chief Justice clearly indicates: "placing an application on the assize list does not guarantee that the application will be heard." The other major downside is that the people making the applications have to be available during the entire assize period because you never know when your application will be heard, if it gets heard at all.

Getting on the Assize List 

An application may be put on the assize list if all of these factors are met:
  1. The application will take between two hours and two days to be heard.
  2. All of the lawyers and anyone who is representing him- or herself agrees to the application being put on the assize list.
  3. Everyone is available for at least three of the five days in the assize period.
  4. The case does not involve family law or judicial reviews.
The assize periods available for booking are listed on the scheduling page of the Supreme Court's website.

I'm looking forward to seeing how the pilot project pans out. If it works, I expect the project will expand to family law cases, and although I will have a great deal of difficulty working my schedule to be available during an entire assize period, if the new system gets long applications heard more frequently than they are at present, I'm all for it.