Thunder Bay

Rainy River District lawyers call for better access to justice in northern Ontario

Lawyers in the Rainy River District are calling for a change to the laws surrounding judicial appointments in Ontario after an auditor general's report stated some courts in the province are under-utilized.

Fort Frances has been without resident judge since 2012, Rainy River District Law Association says

The courthouse in Fort Frances, Ont. Fort Frances is the seat of the Rainy River District, the only judicial district in Ontario without a resident judge. (Wikipedia)

Lawyers in the Rainy River District are calling for a change to the laws surrounding judicial appointments in Ontario after an auditor general's report stated some courts in the province are under-utilized.

The report, which was released last week, stated the Fort Frances court only sits for an average of 1.3 hours a day.

However, Rainy River District Law Association president and Fort Frances town councillor Douglas Judson said that's partly due to the fact that Fort Frances is the seat of the Rainy River district, which is the only jurisdiction in Ontario without a resident judge.

"The Rainy River District has been without a provincial court judge since 2012," Judson said. "The constraint we seem to be under is that while the government seems to be receptive to making such an appointment ... the judiciary decides where the vacancies are announced."

"So far, there hasn't been any indication that they're going to announce a vacancy in Fort Frances."

So, Fort Frances relies on visiting judges, Judson said. Court operations are based around their availability and scheduling, and cases are regularly put over to subsequent court days because they can't be concluded before a visiting judge's scheduled departure.

New legislation sought

Judson said the association wants to see new legislation enacted that would require a minimum number of resident judges in each northern jurisdiction.

"That would ensure that we're always protected in a way, there's always a requirement that there'd be a judge in these places," he said. "It would ensure that all Ontarians can expect the same reasonable access to justice."

Judson did say the auditor general's report, overall, is a valuable contribution to the overall discussion about court efficiency in Ontario, and how to address the backlogs in cases.

However, there are other issues with the report. For example, the report refers to Fort Frances having three courtrooms, when, in fact, it has two, "and only one that is particularly hospitable for large numbers of counsel or visitors," Judson said.

Security costs increasing

Further, Judson said, there's some question about the accuracy of the 1.3 hour figure itself.

"I'm also a town councillor in Fort Frances," he said. "The municipality pays for court security costs, and I can tell you that the cost of court security has gone from projections of around $120,000 in 2015, to over $340,000 in 2019."

"The only way you get there, between those two numbers, is because you're requiring more security present, because your court days are longer, because your officers require more overtime."