'Significant and complicated challenges' in northern Manitoba courts laid bare in internal government document

Systemic issues impeding the administration of justice in northern Manitoba have been described in unusually frank and unfiltered terms in documents obtained by CBC News.

Cafeteria courtrooms, lack of technology, limited court hours, transportation issues strain system

Documents obtained by CBC News describe in great detail the systemic issues plaguing the courts in northern Manitoba. (The Associated Press)

Systemic issues impeding the administration of justice in northern Manitoba have been described in unusually frank and unfiltered terms in documents obtained by CBC News.

The documents, which consist of detailed meeting minutes, show last March provincial Chief Judge Margaret Wiebe established a task force called the Thompson Working Group, bringing together representatives from the legal community, the RCMP, Sheriff Services and deputy ministers.

The discussions contained in the documents centre around the dysfunction within the Thompson provincial court centre, which acts the main justice hub for most of northern Manitoba.

RCMP cells used as 'de facto' jail

In one example, the local RCMP described their Thompson detachment as serving as a "de facto provincial remand centre," alluding to the large volume of inmates they hold awaiting transport by sheriffs to correctional centres because of a lack provincially managed cell space.

The document notes close to 6,000 people a year are held in the RCMP cells in Thompson.

The RCMP representative also complained of the lengthy delays — up to two weeks at times — in receiving court disposition documents from the court office in order to update their police database.

Concerns were expressed over how, for example, delays in inputting details of a no-contact probation order in a domestic case could put people's safety at risk, since responding officers would be unaware of the new conditions imposed on an offender.

Inmate transportation and late start times

The documents show that defence lawyers are growing frustrated with the late arrival of inmates to the courthouse — given the limited amount of court time on any given day — from the remand centre in The Pas, a nearly 400-kilometre drive.

When it was suggested that inmates should arrive in the Thompson courthouse for 9 a.m., Darcy Blackburn, the executive director of sheriff services, said her team often has to arrange for same-day flights out of remote communities to get them to their hearing.

Poor technology and little access to clients

The records reveal the lack of basic technological amenities such as reliable Wi-Fi signals or cell phone service throughout the court hinders the ability to introduce simple tech solutions. They also suggest some lawyers don't use computers in their day-to-day work, and so would likely not adopt certain proposed tech solutions.

Provincial court judge Theresa McDonald, who at the time of the meetings was a director for Legal Aid, stated that many lawyers in Thompson have raised concerns over their inability to get in touch with their clients when they are behind bars.

One Thompson lawyer said when he uses the jailhouse telephone system managed by the company Synergy to contact a client, they sometimes cannot hear him and leaving a message costs money.

It was noted as well that the "use of cafeteria as a courtroom has become a regular occurrence and it is not ideal." Safety concerns over the fact the furniture is not bolted to the floor were raised.

Too little court time; long queues

The combination of all of these systemic issues ultimately leaves prisoners to stagnate in the justice system.

The meeting minutes reveal a cycle in which people are transported long distances from the remand centre to attend court, where they fail to have to their matter dealt with because of inefficient uses of time, only to be shipped back to the remand centre to await the next available court date.

Chris Gamby a Winnipeg-based lawyer and spokesperson for the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba, says this type of situation can encourage a person to plead guilty since they have already served enough time in remand to be released, even though they may have a legitimate defence.

Chris Gamby, a Winnipeg-based lawyer and spokesperson for the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba, says the working group appears to have identified the main issues and think a lack of funding for the justice system is at the core of the problem. (CBC)

"Too often you will come to a day where there is a trial and they may in fact plead guilty because on that day it means ... they can go home."

Gamby says the issues flagged by the Thompson Working Group generally "hit the nail on the head."

"A lot of it I do think comes back to funding. The justice system as whole in this province is chronically underfunded. That's been a problem for a very long time."

He says defence lawyers working Legal Aid in Manitoba cases have not seen pay increases since 2008.

'We need a global solution' 

In response to questions from the CBC about the issues flagged by her working group, Wiebe acknowledged the Thompson court centre is facing "significant and complicated challenges."

"There is a recognition by the court that all of the stakeholders in the system need to work together to be able to address the issues — both daily issues and systemic issues. Individual stakeholders can only address parts of the system," she wrote.

Asked whether the problems can be resolved solely through better management of existing resources, Wiebe said "efficiencies are only part of the problem."

"We do need the proper resources in place at all levels of the system — right from clerks to judges. We also need technological support and we need to be able to properly statistically measure what it is we are doing, how we are doing it and how timely we are acting. Therefore, it is not as simple as saying we need resources … we need a global solution to the issues," said Wiebe.

Manitoba Grand Chief Arlen Dumas says he believes a greater focus on restorative justice could help alleviate some of the court backlogs. (CBC)

The chief judge said she is also very supportive of initiatives that make greater use of restorative justice approaches, something the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs has been calling for.

"Many cases that are not criminal in nature are taking up time in courtrooms. Cases that could be dealt with in the restorative justice field should be supported," said Grand Chief Arlen Dumas.

"Some people have substance issues, some people have addictions issues and we shouldn't be using the court system to deal with those things … The court system should be dealing with the criminal matters that we require them to look after," he said.

A request for comment from the justice minister went unanswered.

Copies of internal Thompson Working Group documents

(Redactions to the document made by CBC News in consultation with Manitoba Justice officials due to security concerns.)


Jacques Marcoux

Data journalist

Jacques Marcoux is a former CBC News investigative reporter specializing in data analysis. He continues to contribute to CBC News.


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