ST. THOMAS, ONT. -- An Ontario judge has dispensed with the need for a signature on a probation order due to the risks of COVID-19.

Justice Glen Donald, who presides over a courtroom in St. Thomas, Ont., accepted a guilty plea remotely from Shawn Ralf on April 29 and handed down a suspended sentence with 12 months of probation.

Ralf would normally sign the probation order, but the judge did not want to take the risk.

"COVID-19 has caused members of our society to reconsider many formalities that were previously of no moment," Donald wrote in his decision.

"Like the handshake, the signature is a casualty to the 'social distancing,' safety imposed, requirements of the pandemic."

Courthouses remain open across Ontario, but staff are significantly fewer in numbers due to the pandemic. Jury trials have been suspended, but many other proceedings are occurring, usually by audio or videoconference.

The court clerk and court reporter are usually the only people physically present in a courtroom during a remote hearing, the judge noted.

"Having Mr. Ralf attend the courthouse to sign his probation order increases the risk that the virus could be transmitted, either way, between himself and the handful of police officers and court staff that he would inevitably have to come into contact with," Donald wrote.

Instead, Ralf agreed to be emailed a copy of his probation order, the judge wrote.

The judge said the validity of the order is not affected by the absence of Ralf's signature.

"There is nothing in the Criminal Code which requires a probation order to be signed by the person whom it governs," Donald wrote. "The probation order was valid once made."

The judge also made efforts to protect court from his decision.

"To the extent that his lack of signature could allow Mr. Ralf to argue that he was not aware of his conditions and thus cannot be held responsible for his non-compliance, I suggest that a transcript of the proceedings offers a full answer to those concerns," Donald wrote.

The judge said communication is imperative, not a signature.

"While obtaining signatures may serve to confirm that we have effectively communicated the terms of our orders, the former does not guarantee the latter," he wrote.

"Thus, the while the signature may represent a best practice, satisfied that Mr. Ralf understands the terms of my order, it is unnecessary in this case."