Local court underutilized: report

Sam Odrowski

A report from the Auditor General has revealed that while the Fort Frances Courthouse has a large backlog of cases, it is being under-utilized.

The local court is used for an average of 1.3 hours per day, compared to 2.2 hours in northwestern Ontario or 2.8 hours across the province, while raising it to an average of 4.5 hours is the provincial government’s target, according to the report.

The Rainy River District Law Association’s (RRDLA) president and town councillor Douglas Judson disputes the Auditor General’s suggestion that the local courthouse is underutilized for a variety of reasons.

He said by applying a standardized approach in evaluating the use of courthouses across the province, the Auditor General has been unable to convey some of the unique constraints faced by the district.

“Fort Frances is the seat of the only judicial district in the province without a resident provincial court judge,” Coun. Judson noted.

“Unlike every other court, our court’s operations are entirely dependent on the scheduling decisions and availability of visiting judges.”

The court is also dependent on the time constraints of visiting judges and their travel schedules, particularly during the winter months when they’re expected to return home to Kenora, Dryden, or Thunder Bay on a court day.

“Fort Frances’ court dockets are long, and matters are routinely adjourned or put over to subsequent court days because they cannot be reached or concluded before the judge’s departure,” Coun. Judson explained.

The RRDLA has been lobbying the province to assist in filling the judicial vacancy since the departure of Justice McKay in 2012, but has yet to see any concrete solutions.

In additional to the court vacancy, Fort Frances has also been without a Superior Court judge since the 1990s, unlike the Kenora and Thunder Bay districts which have such officeholders in their courts, Coun. Judson noted.

He also said the Auditor General’s report doesn’t account for the court’s actual facilities and breadth of operations outside of the building.

The report bases its figures on there being three courtrooms in Fort Frances, while there are only two.

It also doesn’t recognize that the court is responsible for administering regular satellite courts in Atikokan and Rainy River.

As well, the Fort Frances Civic Centre holds Provincial Offences court now, since it takes place on days when other courtrooms are in use.

Coun. Judson told the Times the province has consistently recognized that the local court is busy, as the Crown Attorney’s Office has expanded to two to three lawyers in the last two years.

A Freedom of Information request to the previous government in May of 2018 revealed that they initiated a project to expand and renovate the Fort Frances Courthouse.

The expansion and renovation was meant to address significant over-programming, as identified in a 2005 space-utilization study.

It was intended to improve access to justice, accessibility, and address a number of health, safety and security concerns at the facility, as well.

“The Ministry of the Attorney General spent $1.5 million developing designs for the courthouse expansion and renovation, but the project was cancelled in 2012 and the budgeted funds were redirected to other jurisdictions.” Coun. Judson remarked.

He also noted that the Auditor General’s suggestion that the court here is underutilized doesn’t align with the experience of other stakeholders in the local justice system.

The town covers security costs at the court through an OPP contract, but due to growth in court dockets, longer and later court sittings, and necessary overtime required by police, annual security cost projections have increased from $126,000 in 2015 to $341,000 in 2019, according to Coun. Judson

“This line item has been the single largest uncontrollable expense on the municipality’s books,” he stressed.

Meanwhile, the Fort Frances Courthouse is at the top of a list of courthouses with above-average delays in disposing criminal cases, usually taking about 177 days.

“Clearly, one way that these matters could be processed more quickly would be with more court time and the local judicial resources to create those conditions and set expectations,” Coun. Judson quipped.

He said it’s not difficult to see a relationship between the facts he’s presented and the numbers provided in the Auditor General’s report.