Equal access to justice threatened in the Acadian Peninsula, lawyers say
Fundamental rights are jeopardized by closures of courthouses in northeast and elsewhere, groups say
Lawyers say they're worried about the closure of courthouses underway in the province for the last 15 years, with the Acadian Peninsula the latest region to be hit.
This week, the provincial government announced that the courthouse in Caraquet will close Jan. 1, and its caseload will be transferred to Bathurst, about 66 kilometres away.
The Tracadie courthouse will become a satellite court, opening only one day a week.
Lawyers who spoke with Radio-Canada say they have fears about how this will impact predominantly French-speaking New Brunswickers in the region, who will be forced to travel farther and face additional costs as a result.
"It seems we have forgotten that access to justice is a fundamental right recognized by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms," said attorney Euclide Lebouthillier, the vice-president of the Association of French Speaking Jurists of New Brunswick.
This right isn't worth much if citizens don't have the means to exercise it, Lebouthillier said.
"Inevitably what's going to happen is that people are going to renounce their rights recognized under the charter," he said.
The two courthouses that deal with criminal cases in provincial court have been operating on reduced hours since the summer of 2020, the Department of Justice and Public Safety said in a news release this week.
There has also been a decrease in the volume of cases in the region since 2012, the release said.
"These changes will allow us to make the best use of available resources given the current volume of cases," Justice and Public Safety Minister Hugh Flemming said in a statement.
"Since the Bathurst courthouse has the capacity to absorb these cases, making these changes will allow us to relieve workload pressures for staff and better allocate resources in our court system."
In 2012 ,the Caraquet court saw 1,260 cases but this number had fallen to 711 in 2020, according to numbers provided by the government. The Tracadie courthouse saw 1,061 cases in 2012 compared with 478 in 2020.
"The target for occupancy per courtroom is 1,200 charges per year," said the Justice Department. "It's how the province determines how many courtrooms are needed per location to accommodate the volume."
The chief judge of the provincial court was consulted about closures, the province said Wednesday.
People on low incomes may be hurt most
Several appearances are often necessary in criminal cases, and the costs associated are not insignificant, said Marc Richard, the general director of the Law Society of New Brunswick.
Lawyers charge extra for any additional time they have to spend travelling, which is why the New Brunswick bar has always promoted an equal distribution of courts around the province.
"Maybe the person is not guilty, but they want to get rid of the case, so they decide to plead guilty instead," Richard said.
Low-income New Brunswickers in particular will bear the brunt of the government's decision to close the courts, the two lawyers said.
These may not own vehicles and will be forced to take more time off work to get to Bathurst.
The closures could discourage sexual assault victims and women experiencing domestic violence from coming forward, the two also said.
"The woman, who already is a victim, will only become more victimized as a result," LeBouthillier said.
Those who would normally contest tickets they believe are unjustified might also be deterred, he added.
"He will just pay it because it costs too much to go up to Bathurst."
The two lawyers emphasized that it's not just regular citizens who will be disadvantaged but everyone involved in the justice system.
Eighty to 85 per cent of all cases in the province go through provincial courts like the one in Caraquet, LeBouthillier said.
Since the court also deals with many cases involving municipal bylaw violations, tickets, and violations of laws protecting the environment and wildlife, police officers and fishing officers that have to testify in these cases will be forced to travel more often.
"When we send our police officers to Bathurst and then elsewhere, it is again the taxpayers who will have to pay, and police won't be on the territory to do the work they are normally paid to do," LeBouthillier said.
Administrative staff in the Caraquet courthouse will be forced to move out of the region once the courthouse closes to keep their jobs, he added.
"From a social point of view, for the accused it is a loss. But for society, it entails incredible costs and disorganization."
Lawyers will also be discouraged from establishing themselves in communities such as Caraquet because they will constantly have to be on the move to handle their cases.
Numerous closures since 2007
Premier Blaine Higgs's government isn't the first to close courthouses. The Liberal governments under Brian Gallant and Shawn Graham started closing courthouses in 2007.
The Graham government closed courthouses in Hampton, Richibucto, Shediac, Sackville, Dalhousie, Neguac, Doaktown, Perth, Shippagan and Sussex. The Gallant government closed the Grand Falls and St. Stephen courthouses.
The Charlotte County courthouse in Saint Andrews closed in 2016.
LeBouthillier wants to see elected officials in the region fight against the decision to closures. It's not just Caraquet and Tracadie that have less access to the justice system, but the entire Acadian Peninsula, he said.
MLAs in all three opposition parties have criticized the decision.
"Access to justice is a principle part of democracy," Isabelle Thériault, the Liberal MLA for Carquet, said in an interview with Radio-Canada.
"The government has just tabled a reform of local governance [under] the pretext that it wants to develop and give more autonomy, and, a few days later, it announces it is cutting services in our rural Francophone, Acadian, and Liberal regions."
With files from Pascal Raiche-Nogue and Alix Villeneuve