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Courthouse’s virtual pivot leaves vulnerable individuals to ‘fall through the cracks’

With court hearings moving largely to the online environment, unhoused and at-risk community in a bind to honour court dates
Waterloo Region Courthouse
Waterloo Region Courthouse. Blair Adams/KitchenerToday

With our courts closed since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many proceedings have been moved to being held remotely – with accused individuals who are not in custody now required to join their hearings by ZOOM video conference or audio conference.

While the pandemic pivot may make sense from the standpoint of stopping the spread of the virus, Kitchener Public Library CEO Mary Chevreau said the move has created challenges for unhoused and vulnerable citizens looking to honour their court dates.

Speaking with 570 NEWS, Chevreau said the Kitchener Public Library and its outreach workers recognized what was a gap in the process and tried their best to help the communities most marginalized individuals find a place with technology and support to meet those scheduled court dates. Partnering with Youth in Conflict WR’s bail program, KPL had been offering space, technology and privacy in the library to help bridge the gap, though Chevreau said that program was in the midst of ramping up when they were forced to close by the second provincial lockdown on Boxing Day.

“We weren’t really able to support more than a handful of individuals.” Said Chevreau. “The library isn’t a courthouse – we’re happy to be able to provide that support when we can but we, like many other public institutions, are closed at the moment and therefore had to stop that program – at least for now.”

While the number does change every day, Chevreau said there are likely over 100 bench summons currently waiting to be served in our community to individuals who have reported no fixed address. Those individuals said Chevreau, are most likely to fall through the cracks – living in precarious housing or unhoused – and they may not be registered in the shelter services system.

“There’s a lot of reasons why those individuals wouldn’t receive their summons – and even if they had the summons, couldn’t honour them because of this issue of access to technology and ZOOM.” Said Chevreau. “I can’t imagine dealing with all the other issues that these individuals are dealing with – housing, the cold, mental health and addiction (…) and then having to understand they have to find technology and a ZOOM account to make their appearance.”

When asked if the teleconferencing option might be a viable alternative to the limited access to technology, Chevreau said most of the individuals challenged by this hurdle don’t have access to a phone – as she said the courts made a “huge assumption” that everyone can just “figure this out on their own.”

As for whether another community organization could “carry the torch” of providing space and technology, Chevreau said it’s more than likely that the issue remains in the domain of the courts. Chevreau said many of her professional partners, as well as the library’s partners and local social service agencies are well aware of the issue, though they’re lacking inappropriate technology, space and staff to support the program moving forward.

“I would think there has to be a change with that directive from the courts,” said Chevreau. “We have a beautiful new courthouse, not more than a block and a half from Central Library which, right now is virtually empty. They could certainly make space and provide staff to support those individuals.”

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