Loss of resident judge still baffles local lawyers, leaders

Heather Latter

After meeting Friday with Marc Bode, Regional Senior Judge for the North West Region, local lawyers and municipal leaders remain baffled by the decision to relocate the resident judge for Rainy River District to a base in Kenora.
The relocation was initiated by the Ontario Court of Justice in December when it decided not to replace Judge Thomas McKay, who moved to London, Ont. last month.
Then in May, Barb Morgan, president of the District of Rainy River Law Library Association, received word the relocation was going ahead—despite a push to retain a full-time resident judge here.
The relocation means Kenora District will increase its number of resident judges from three to four while Thunder Bay District has six, leaving Rainy River District with none.
“I don’t understand why a judge could not be set in the Rainy River District, and when they are needed, they could go out of the district if there wasn’t enough serving time for them here,” said Fort Frances Mayor Roy Avis.
“It would just be the opposite of what they are asking them to do right now.”
“In our minds, video-conferencing can work so that we could’ve still had a resident judge but do more video-conferencing with the judge in Fort Frances,” noted Morgan.
“I don’t think any of us in the local bar understand why there’s this rationale that the judge must be in Kenora,” she added, citing video-conferencing could accommodate a resident judge in Fort Frances doing scheduled video-conferences serving people in Kenora since there already are three judges there.
“We don’t feel the answer to that is satisfactory,” Morgan stressed.
“I don’t think any of us can appreciate the rationale because there is no rationale, at least nothing that’s been expressed to us as a legitimate reason as to why the resident judicial seat couldn’t have stayed here, with increasing video service to Kenora to accommodate residual or overflow matters in the Kenora District.”
Morgan said she believes the overflow needs or residual cases would be quite a bit less in the District of Kenora. Whereas in Fort Frances, it’s an entire district that is going to be reliant on video-conferencing for anything other than limited scheduled dates.
Both Morgan and Mayor Avis indicated it was clear from Friday’s meeting that Justice Bode wasn’t going to change his mind about the relocation.
In fact, instead of providing answers to area lawyers and municipal leaders, the nature of the meeting was to discuss a schedule that will be put in place until the newly-relocated judicial seat in Kenora is filled in December or January.
“For now, we’ll be having judges either come in from Kenora or Thunder Bay on a rotating basis—and it seemed to me, just one day at a time,” Morgan noted.
The tentative schedule the lawyers received shows one family court date in July, a combined day with criminal court in August, and then another family court date in September.
“I don’t count [the date in August],” said Morgan, arguing that by scheduling family court and criminal court in one day is “essentially meaningless” because there won’t be time for family court matters unless it’s something really urgent.
“It’s a very long time for people in family court to wait,” she stressed, noting it’s a full two months between dates if there isn’t time for family court matters at the August court session.
Morgan also noted there’s one court date booked in Rainy River for July and another tentative one for the end of August.
“They have a judge for most of August, but the last week of August they can’t find a judge,” she said.
“So the dates are already somewhat compromised by the lack of a resident judge.”
Morgan thinks they are doing the best they can, given the circumstances, but that members of the bar don’t feel it’s the most productive way of dealing with things.
In a letter written to Morgan by Justice Bode back in December, he noted a change in a judge’s base court would not result in a reduction of judicial services in the district.
“[It] will not determine the amount of judicial sitting time the District of Rainy River, or any community in the District of Rainy River, will receive,” he wrote.
“The change in base courts simply will make it easier for the court to distribute the judicial workload, and in particular the very significant travel associated with that workload, more evenly among the judiciary,” he added.
But area lawyers and municipal leaders disagree.
Mayor Avis doesn’t believe the temporary rotating schedule of judges serving the district over the next six months is in the best interest of residents here.
“We will not have equal services that other districts have,” he charged.
“I think the government has to be criticized for the move that they’ve made because judges are a part of the community, part of the infrastructure,” he stressed.
“If we don’t have a judge living in Fort Frances, I call it a whistle-stop judge,” Mayor Avis continued. “They’ll be stopping in here, doing their job, and moving on.
“They never really get to know the community, the people in the community,” he said.
“Whereas people who live in the district . . . they become part of the fabric of the community.”
Moving forward, once a new judge is appointed in Kenora, which won’t be until December of January, area lawyers have been assured they will be able to meet with the new judge, and another judge out of Kenora District who also will be providing service in Rainy River District, to discuss scheduling.