Amalgamated courthouse in Toronto 'significant barrier' to justice, critics say

Advocates for legal professionals, labour unions and race relations are decrying a move by the Ontario government to amalgamate Toronto-area courthouses into one centralized downtown location.

Shuttering courthouses outside downtown a strain on racialized communities, advocates warn

A rendering of the New Toronto Courthouse on Armoury Street. (Infrastructure Ontario)

Some advocates are slamming the Ontario government's move to amalgamate several courthouses into one downtown Toronto location, calling the move dangerous, unjust, and racist.

They say the province is ignoring a City of Toronto report that says shuttering courthouses in North York, Etobicoke, and Scarborough and creating the New Toronto Courthouse downtown will put a "disproportionately high" strain on Black, Indigenous, and other racialized communities. 

Four representatives for Crown attorneys, legal professionals, labour unions, and race relations advocates held a news conference at Queen's Park on Thursday to call on Premier Doug Ford and Attorney General Doug Downey to stop the consolidation.

"We have heard time and time again that this amalgamation would represent a significant barrier to accessing justice services for the city's racialized communities," said Tony Loparco, president of the Ontario Crown Attorneys Association. He called on the premier, the attorney general, and their staff to read the city report.

The New Toronto Courthouse will be located near St. Patrick subway station. One critics says the 'amalgamation would represent a significant barrier to accessing justice services for the city's racialized communities.' (Infrastructure Ontario)

The New Toronto Courthouse (NTC) is located on Armoury Street, near Queen Street and University Avenue. Construction began in 2018, and the exterior was completed in 2021. It's expected to be operational in 2023, according to the Infrastructure Ontario website. The province has said consolidating court operations into one location will save as much as $700-million over 30 years in lease fees.

But Dana Fisher, a local vice-president with the Society of United Professionals representing Legal Aid Ontario, said the amalgamation will mostly affect North York, Etobicoke, and Scarborough, which are "communities already facing significant socioeconomic disadvantages created by systemic forces of discrimination."

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Fisher, who called the plan "unsafe, inefficient, and systemically racist," said lawyers working in courthouses see the challenges that already exist for people trying to get to court.

"Many are without child care or transportation, or they have precarious employment and must balance the risks of getting fired with the risks of getting arrested for missing court," she said.

"It will only get worse if this government goes through with its plan to close community courthouses."

Fisher said not only are there personal consequences for victims, witnesses, or accused persons who don't show up for court, there are effects on "the justice system as a whole."

"As individual impacts compound into systemic problems, people lose faith in the justice system, costs spiral out of control, and we see more people, disproportionately Black and Indigenous people, imprisoned for nonviolent offences." 

Concerns about safety, increased costs

Loparco said small businesses that have opened near existing courthouses will be shuttered. He also said the centralized location raises other concerns about cost and safety.

"Taxpayers will also be on the hook for the increased cost of police who will now have to take significant time off to attend downtown courts instead of patrolling their areas and then appearing in court when needed," he said.

"Eliminating these courthouses will also mean that both perpetrators and victims will be on the subway and at the courthouse, which may result in an increased risk of gang-related violence."

Advocates criticized the provinces plan for an amalgamated courthouse in Toronto at Queen's Park on Thursday. From left to right: Nigel Barriffe, president of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, JP Hornick, president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, Tony Loparco, president of the Ontario Crown Attorneys Association, and Dana Fisher, local vice-president of the Society of United Professionals. (CBC News/ONT Parl)

Nigel Bariffe, president of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, said people using local courthouses live far from the downtown core and will have to take a whole day off work to make court appearances.

"Many cannot afford the day of lost wages, caregiver costs, and transit fees, so consolidation will end up increasing justice system costs because of delayed cases, increased arrest warrants, and thrown-out cases," he said.

'High-risk opportunity' for spreading COVID-19

Fisher said the NTC is also not equipped to handle a pandemic, and its design will "exacerbate" the risk of contracting COVID-19. 

"It provides only one workstation for every four Legal Aid Ontario lawyer to be working in that courthouse," she said. "As each of us comes into contact with many clients, colleagues, and members of the public on any given day, the potential to spread viruses among us is enormous."

Fisher also raised concern over the small number of elevators, which will create "another high-risk opportunity for transmitting COVID and other airborne viruses."

Fisher said it's not often stakeholders with "such diverse and often opposing interests come together like this."

"But we're here today as representatives of prosecutors, defence counsel, courthouse staff and community activists, aligned in fighting for access to justice, equity, and safe courthouses."