Help pledged to tackle judicial issues
There is some hope on the horizon to improve the judicial problems facing Rainy River District due to the loss of a resident judge here last year.
Janet Whitehead, chair of the County and District Law Presidents’ Association (CDLPA), met with representatives of the District of Rainy River Law Association at La Place Rendez-Vous here Friday morning to see and hear first-hand the consequences of the decision to relocate the resident judge for this district to a base in Kenora.
“Once you have a concrete understanding of that, it’s easier to appreciate what the consequences are,” she reasoned.
“So it’s been really helpful for us to come up here and understand the distances, and understand the context of a northern community.”
Whitehead said she heard about the delays being experienced here.
“We’re concerned about the quality of the justice system provided here in the area,” she remarked.
“We certainly see where there are schedules where there are judges apparently available,” she continued.
“But then when you actually start looking at what does that experience mean for the people who are accessing the judicial resources, how is it qualitatively, we’re finding out that there’s consequences.”
Whitehead admitted she heard some anecdotes that caused her some concern, and she wants to take a closer look to see whether those are indicative of the overall experience that’s happening here.
“It’s those types of things that we need to look at a little more closely so that we can do a better job going back and explaining that to other people and hopefully gaining their co-operation in getting some improvements,” she explained.
The CDLPA reflects the consensus voice of the 46 law associations across Ontario on matters that affect the practising bar—and Whitehead said she’s hoping to take the weight of their membership and put that behind the local association.
She said they already have met with the Attorney General, at which time they raised this issue with him and expressed their concern about it.
“We recognize he’s concerned, as well,” added Whitehead, noting they left the meeting with a commitment on their part to do some more investigation and provide an understanding of what’s really happening here.
“And that’s part of what we’re doing today [Friday],” she remarked, adding the province has promised to look closely at the situation and to look at the information the CDLPA presents.
“I think this is something that we can really take a stand and make it clear that this is not an acceptable situation up here,” Whitehead reiterated.
“And just because it’s happening in Fort Frances and the Rainy River District, we’re concerned that it could happen elsewhere and we just think it is appropriate for our membership to get behind the local association and help where ever we can.”
Whitehead admitted her familiarity is with associations more in the southern part of the province and that some of the situations here are very surprising to her.
“This is very different than the experience I’m used to in both my home association of Lambton, as well as the other areas that I’ve had the good fortune of visiting,” she remarked, noting in particular the court facilities she toured Friday morning.
“Just looking at the water damage and even the prospective renovations,” Whitehead cited.
“I understand there are going to be some slight changes when they do that corrective work,” she noted.
“But even so, there were issues that immediately came to mind that I’ve dealt with in other courthouses that don’t seem to have been looked at at all, so that causes me some concern.”
Barb Morgan, president of the local association, said Whitehead was able to see first-hand “the courthouse renovations that have not started, the lack of space, the degradation of some of the structural problems at our local courthouse, and certainly [was] able to speak with people from First Nations, the public, and, of course, the local bar.”
She thanked Whitehead and Scott Lovel, the CDLPA’s director of public affairs, for visiting Fort Frances. The pair then headed to a similar meeting in Dryden later Friday.
“They’ve travelled from Toronto and it makes a huge difference when people can actually come to our community, see how beautiful it is even this time of year, and have a fuller appreciation of what the distances are, the weather issues, the geographic location, and not withstanding the challenges in the community right now, the vibrancy in the community,” Morgan stressed.
She added they now will be able to go back to Toronto, speak with the Attorney General, and indicate that they’ve been to our community, they’ve been to our courthouse, and they’ve spoken with the stakeholders personally.
“[They] are really much better informed in terms of what the issues are that we are facing, both directly and indirectly, as a loss of our resident judge and all of the consequential effects that have resulted from that decision,” she noted.
“We’re not prepared to simply acquiesce to the decisions that are made in Toronto that adversely affect the north,” Morgan stressed.
“Many northern communities face similar decision-making results that impact the north without really getting fair consideration of the totality of the circumstances for northern communities that are often disregarded.”
She said residents of Rainy River District pay the same tax dollars as those in the rest of Ontario.
“And I don’t think the people of the north need to apologize for asking for a reasonable level of service and access to what we call appropriate justice,” she reasoned.
Morgan was pleased that Whitehead vowed to do everything she can to help the situation here.
“We’ll certainly be making the situation in Rainy River [District] known to our other local associations and gaining assistance from them and their support,” Whitehead said.
“And just try to do whatever we can to persuade people that this situation is not acceptable.”
Whitehead explained as a result of Friday’s meeting, they will be putting together a package of material to send on to the Attorney General and to the judiciary, and they intend to follow up with them on the situation.
“So far it looks like you’ve got a system that has some significant flaws,” she acknowledged.
“And to date, it’s been the bar, it’s been the municipalities, it’s been the First Nations, it’s been the communities who have bent over backwards to try to hold it all together and it’s time for our justice partners to step up and do what they need to do to meet their end of providing appropriate services.”
Whitehead indicated the CDLPA always is concerned about access to justice, but that it also needs to look at the qualitative nature of that.
“It needs to be access to appropriate justice and that’s what we see is lacking here,” she remarked.
But Whitehead said she’s hopeful they can bring about some improvements—and maybe see the return of a resident judge to the district.
“If I wasn’t hopeful that could be an outcome, we wouldn’t necessarily be taking the steps we are,” she explained.
“We’re doing this because I believe we can make a difference.”
Morgan also feels hopeful the meeting with the CDLPA will bring about some significant changes.
“But it is really going to be dependent on the members of our community to step up to the plate and keep this issue alive, and indicate to the powers that be that we are suffering as a result of the loss of our judge,” she stressed.