While Canadians were being urged to stay home during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a judge with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice was cleared to fly to the Caribbean and preside over her Toronto-area court cases remotely, CBC News has learned.
The judge is assigned to conduct civil and criminal hearings at several courthouses in the Central West Region, west of Toronto.
But until recently, the judge — who left Canada for the Turks and Caicos on Jan. 9 and remains there — was conducting court cases while staying at a beachfront resort.
CBC News reached out to the judge, and she forwarded a request for comment to Superior Court Chief Justice Geoffrey B. Morawetz.
His office said the judge advised Justice Leonard Ricchetti, regional senior judge for the Central West Region, of her plans before she left.
“The situation that led to the travel involves very specific personal and confidential circumstances and based upon these was deemed not inappropriate,” Morawetz’s office said in a statement.
Because the nature of those personal reasons is unknown, CBC News is not identifying the judge.
The judge continued to preside over court matters for weeks after landing in the Turks and Caicos.
On Feb. 8, shortly after CBC News asked Morawetz’s office whether she was working from the Caribbean, the judge was advised to stop doing so.
“She had heard some matters as a result of an oversight. She will not be scheduled to hear further matters while out of the country,” the chief justice’s office said.
The judge is expected to remain in the Caribbean until the end of this month, his office said.
Judge left days after judiciary asked not to travel
The judge left Canada three days after Morawetz issued travel and work directives to all Superior Court justices in Ontario.
“In view of the ongoing public health crisis, on Jan. 6, 2021, Chief Justice Morawetz asked members of the SCJ judiciary to act in accordance with the government’s public health advice to avoid non-essential travel,” his office said.
“He also recognized that there may be unique circumstances that require a member of the judiciary to travel, but, in general, he indicated that travel should be avoided and judges were asked to avoid sitting on proceedings while out of the country.”
It’s not clear whether other judges have travelled and conducted court hearings from abroad, because officials said they don’t keep count.
“Judges are ultimately responsible for their own conduct. Some, but not all, will have discussed or sought guidance or direction from their regional senior judge regarding travel,” according to Morawetz’s office.
“As a result, regional senior judges will be aware if some judges are outside the province or country, but they may not have information about all judges or, in any given case, all the details.”
Public officials who travelled paid heavy price
Some public figures who travelled during provincially imposed lockdowns have paid a heavy price due in part to public outrage.
In December, Ontario’s finance minister, Rod Phillips, resigned after it was learned he travelled to St. Barts during the Christmas holidays.
Premier Doug Ford said he was unaware that Phillips had left the country until after the minister had already arrived on the Caribbean island.
Ford himself was derided by some for taking a day trip to his Muskoka cottage last spring to check on construction work at the property after urging Ontarians to stay home.
Dr. Tom Stewart, who was chief executive officer of two Ontario hospital networks in Hamilton and Niagara Region and a member of several health advisory roles — including an adviser to the province on COVID-19 — travelled to the Dominican Republic over the holidays. He was removed from both CEO posts and resigned from his provincial advisory roles in January.
Also last month, Hamilton-area MP David Sweet resigned as chair of the House of Commons ethics committee after travelling to the United States in December.
Numerous other public officials have also faced public criticism for leaving the country to visit family, including sick relatives, or check on properties.
Canadians returning home face increasing hurdles
While there is nothing illegal about travelling abroad during the pandemic, the federal government is placing additional health and safety measures on Canadians returning home to discourage travel.
Starting Feb. 22, international travellers will be forced to quarantine for up to three days in specific hotels at their own expense while they await the results of a COVID-19 test.
If the test is negative, they will be allowed to self-isolate at home for the remaining 14-day quarantine period.
Canadian airlines have suspended travel to Mexico and the Caribbean, including the Turks and Caicos, until the end of April in an effort to help contain the spread of the novel coronavirus and variants that are believed to be more transmissible.