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Judicial appointments can't come soon enough for Nunavut

With circuits being cancelled, trials being rescheduled and an enormous case load on its judiciary, Nunavut is in dire need of more judges.

Some circuit courts have been cancelled as territory's judges grapple with vacancies, high caseload

A courtroom at the Nunavut Court of Justice. Slammed by a high caseload, Nunavut's judiciary is in dire need of more judges. (Nick Murray/CBC)

A promise by federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to appoint more judges "as soon as possible" can't be fulfilled soon enough in Nunavut.

Unlike the rest of the country where provinces have both provincial/territorial courts and superior courts, Nunavut has a unified system where its federally-appointed judges handle everything.

Already this year, two criminal court circuits in Igloolik and Hall Beach have been cancelled because of a lack of judges and any indictable cases were postponed. Instead, the court sent a Justice of the Peace to handle summary convictions and youth cases.

Nunavut's senior judge Justice Robert Kilpatrick had warned in December that circuits would be cancelled if more judges weren't appointed. A jury trial has also been rescheduled because of the judge shortage.

In a statement, Kilpatrick said this year's court calendar was made in anticipation of not having judges available.

In preparing Iqaluit's court schedule for this year, the courts cut 16 criminal docket weeks from the calendar and four more weeks available for special sittings, reserved for longer matters such as a lengthy trial.

"In addition, matters being scheduled for special sittings in both civil and criminal matters are having to be set to later dates to accommodate the increased judicial workload," Kilpatrick said.

"This raises significant concerns relating to delays in dealing with matters before the court."

Given Nunavut's current vacancies, combined with an increase in the number of complex and lengthy cases that have to be handled by resident judges, the court doesn't always have a judge available to open a second courtroom in Iqaluit during weeks where there may be more cases on a docket than usual. That's affecting the territory's ability to deal with its high caseload.

Appointments coming

Nunavut already has one empty seat on its bench, and Kilpatrick is set to retire in September.

Last month, the committee responsible with vetting potential candidates met for the first time in four years (the delay was largely because it couldn't reach quorum) and came up with a fresh list of candidates from whom Wilson-Raybould can choose.

Nunavut's Justice Minster Keith Peterson has also weighed in on the need for more judges in the territory. He recently sent a letter to Wilson-Raybould, calling the need for more judges and deputy judges "urgent."

Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada Jody Wilson-Raybould says she's working to fill judicial vacancies across the country 'as quickly as possible.' (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

In a statement, Wilson-Raybould said while the government is reviewing the entire judicial appointments process, they're also looking at ways to "facilitate highly pressing judicial vacancies as soon as possible."

"We have committed to a review of the entire judicial appointments process, based on the principles of openness, transparency, merit, and diversity," Wilson-Raybould said in the statement.

"This review will achieve a greater degree of diversity within the Canadian judiciary, so that it will truly reflect the face of Canada. "

A spokesperson for Wilson-Raybould couldn't comment if Nunavut's appointments were among those highly pressing vacancies.

In its history, Nunavut has never had an Inuk judge appointed to the Nunavut Court of Justice. Its last appointment came last year when Justice Paul Bychok was pulled out of retirement to serve on the bench.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nick Murray

Reporter

Nick Murray is a CBC News reporter, based in Iqaluit since 2015. He specializes in investigative reporting and access to information legislation. A graduate from St. Thomas University's journalism program, he's also covered four Olympic Games as a senior writer with CBC Sports.

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