Yellowknife lawyer, community advocate, find flaws in report critical of N.W.T. justice system

The MacDonald-Laurier Institute assigned failing grades to aspects of the N.W.T. justice system in a recent report, but a Yellowknife defence lawyer and a social advocate question the assessment.

Yellowknife lawyer Peter Harte and social advocate Lydia Bardak question some conclusions of recent report

The Northwest Territories justice system received some poor grades in a new report, but some in Yellowknife question some of the report's interpretations. (Walter Strong/CBC)

A prominent social advocate and a Yellowknife defence lawyer say some low grades assigned the N.W.T. justice system recently may not be entirely fair. The 2017 justice system report was published by the MacDonald-Laurier Institute this week.

This Report Card on the Criminal Justice System found flaws with the Northwest Territories justice system, but some who work within that system in Yellowknife question those findings.

The report identified the high cost of delivering justice in the North as a problem — the report gave the N.W.T. a failing grade in the category of costs and resources — but Lydia Bardak, a community advocate, says there are good reasons for those high costs.

Yellowknife social advocate Lydia Bardak says the high cost of delivering justice in the North is to be expected. (CBC)

"I think in some respects we have to be thankful for some of those costs," she said. "It means justice is happening in the communities."

"When we fly a court party to Tuktoyaktuk for example, there is a high cost to doing that, but it's much better to have justice served closer to home than it is far from home," she said. 

There are 33 communities in the Northwest Territories. Many are not connected by roads during summer months and rely on air transport for access. They also rely on a fly-in circuit court system which brings lawyers and judges to remote communities. 

The justice report also found the territory stays or withdraws a higher number of charges than the Canadian average. According to the report, that wastes time and clogs up the legal system, making it less efficient.

But Yellowknife defence lawyer Peter Harte disagrees with that conclusion.

Yellowknife lawyer Peter Harte questions whether a large number of stays of court proceedings represents an inefficient court system. (CBC)

"From my perspective that means the system is working more efficiently because charges that would otherwise result in unsuccessful prosecutions are taken out of the system at an early stage and resources aren't wasted in a fruitless prosecution," he said.

The report did find the N.W.T. top of class in some respects. For example, it was rated with the second best record in the country for solving both violent and non-violent claims, earning an A+ on both counts.

The report also showed the N.W.T. has an efficient judiciary process.

The median length of time for a criminal cases to move through the Northwest Territories courts is 72 days per case. Most provinces had a higher median, with the province of Quebec the longest at 228 days. Prince Edward Island has the shortest, with a median of 37 days.

Read the entire MacDonald-Laurier Institute report here.

With files from Jamie Malbeuf