Closing 4 courts a tough call, but necessary, says Andrew Parsons
Justice Minister Andrew Parsons says unless there's a turn-around in the province's finances, he won't be reversing his decision to close four courts in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Liberal government announced in its April 14 budget it will close the Supreme Courts in Grand Bank and Grand Falls-Windsor and the provincial courts in Harbour Grace and Wabush.
The government hopes to have all four shut down sometime in August.
Parsons said closing those courts is a tough decision, but a reality given the tough economic times, and said the government will do what it can to minimize the impact.
"Right now, we are still working through a number of issues," he said in an interview. "We are talking about the availability of circuits in some cases. We are working with the judiciary and working with the court administration to figure out what is the best way to make this decision going forward."
Province expects to save $1.3M per year
The government will save about $800,000 this year because of the closures, and $1.3 million annually after that.
The court in Harbour Grace is by far the busiest of the four counts on the chopping block. It has handled more than 1,000 cases a year. Last December, the court was moved from its historic brick building to a rented facility across the street.
Lawyer Richard Collins, who has been practising law out of Bay Roberts for decades, said he was shocked when he learned the court in nearby Harbour Grace was to be shut down.
"I'll have to come to St. John's for more matters. I can live with that. I feel for the mother of two who makes minimum wage and who is going to have to come to St. John's to deal with a support issue. Or somebody trying to get a criminal matter resolved who can't afford to drive to St. John's, or can't afford to hire a lawyer in St. John's. That's all going to be impacted."
Lawyer says impact will be hardest on poorest
Collins said closing the court is denying those who can least afford it, access to justice.
"On a typical first appearance day for criminal matters there's often 50 people on the docket. I don't see how you can move that to St. John's effectively."
Collins belief about denying access to justice is echoed by St. John's lawyer, Bob Buckingham, who has done work out of Harbour Grace.
"The cost associated with trying to get to court to have your matter heard, I think, is going to be prohibitive to them," said Buckingham, adding that forcing people to travel to St. John's or Clarenville will stop some people from attending court.
"It's not fair to those individuals."
Closure of busy court 'unbelievable'
Buckingham said shutting down Harbour Grace is especially concerning.
"That Harbour Grace closing is probably emblematic of the difficulties in this situation. It is unbelievable when you look at the number of cases that go through there on an annual basis, in terms of family law, peace bonds," he said.
"Then with the criminal cases as well, that they would cut that court, and require those people to travel an hour and sometimes more. I think the decision is shortsighted."
But Parsons said it is already a reality in this province for many people to have to travel great distances to attend court, and these changes won't be denying anyone access to justice.
"When you have other people in other parts of the province that travel farther for the same service, then how can you say it is a denial here?"
Parsons said even with having the police escort prisoners out of Harbour Grace, and with having to pay some witnesses' travel costs, financially, it still makes sense to close that court.
Another criticism of the closures is the possibility that it could reduce the number of police officers in a area when they have to attend court elsewhere.
Parsons said they are taking everything into consideration.
"It certainly not something anybody wants to have to do, but I think, working with the people who are involved, working with the judiciary, working with our police services, working with out sheriff's officers, we are going to ensure we have a minimization of the impact."