Loss of resident judges not forgotten

Heather Latter

As the Rainy River District Courthouse marked its 100th anniversary last week, the hardships brought on by the loss of the resident judges could not be forgotten.
The decision to relocate the resident judge for Rainy River District to a base in Kenora was made in June, 2012, increasing Kenora District’s number of resident judges from three to four while leaving Rainy River District with none.
Barbara Morgan, president of the Rainy River Law Library Association, has been pushing for the past two years for the decision to be overturned.
And she continued her efforts as she spoke during the special sitting of the court in honour of the centennial last Wednesday.
“We are here today to celebrate the existence of this courthouse; the very foundation for the rule of law that has served the residents of the District of Rainy River for 100 years,” Morgan remarked.
“In this very courtroom, thousands of cases have been heard and judicially determined, and the one principle that has always prevailed is the rule of law.
“This is what the courthouse represents,” she stressed. “It is not simply a large brick building in the centre of our town; it is the place where people will engage with the formal justice system.
“And why is this so important to the citizens of the Rainy River District?” Morgan asked rhetorically. “Because all of our lives are shaped by the law—from how fast we drive a car to how we unravel the problems that arise when our marriages break down.
“This is where the citizens are guided and governed by the certainty of the rule of law, which, as a right, belongs to the citizens,” she added, noting there are vacancies that need to be address.
Morgan reiterated remarks made by Honourable Chief Justice Heather Smith during the opening of the law courts on Sept. 9.
“On a court as large as ours, we will always experience judicial vacancies,” Smith had said in Toronto. “In the past, the federal minister of justice filled these vacancies in a timely manner.
“Regrettably, this year is quite different,” she noted. “Today we have 20 outstanding vacancies on our court that have been accumulating since October, 2013.
“An additional 10 vacancies will arise by the end of this year—nine of them family judges,” Smith added, saying if not filled promptly, we will have a total of 30 judicial vacancies by the end of 2014.
Smith had stressed it is critical to meeting the court’s obligation to Ontarians that these vacancies be met.
“If the chief justice of the Superior Court of Justice of Ontario is willing to speak truth to power to address the problem in such a public form as the opening of the courts, we can and must follow her lead,” Morgan stressed.
“Rainy River has suffered from the loss of the resident judges in the Superior Court of Justice and the Ontario Court of Justice,” she said, noting the district has felt the resulting consequences.
But Morgan said that’s not the problem, but rather the symptom, that results from serious underfunding for judicial resources.
“According to the Canadian Bar Association, [in] a report released in August, 2013, spending on the justice system, excluding police and corrections but including prosecutions, courts, victim and other justice services, and legal aid, is roughly one percent of the governments budget,” Morgan maintained.
“The fact is, there are simply not enough judges at the Superior Court and Ontario Court level to provide necessary judicial services and oversights that are absolutely required in a free and democratic society—the underpinning of which is the rule of law,” she stressed.
“The citizens of the Rainy River District have a right to expect access to justice, and the members of the bar have the right and duty to advocate for access to justice and the replacement of our resident judges,” she added.
“We have a 100-year-old courthouse that will continue to stand as the place our citizens have come to respect and to attend when the experience a legal problem,” Morgan said.
“It strikes me as odd, if not somewhat unfair, that the level of judicial services for the people of the Rainy River District can be eroded in favour of other communities,” she added.
“We celebrate the 100th anniversary of this courthouse and we make this request of the lawmakers and those in authority.
“We ask that our citizens be given the opportunity to interact with the judicial, executive, and legislative branches of government to have public, transparent, and meaningful discourse to address the problems and challenges that directly resulted from the loss of our resident judges,” Morgan said.
“Simply put, we ask for this Audi Alteram Partem—the right to be heard.”