Pleas fail to save resident judge

Heather Latter

After plans were announced late last year indicating the Ontario Court of Justice’s intention to relocate the resident judge for Rainy River District to a base in Kenora or Dryden, area lawyers and municipal leaders voiced their concerns and pushed to retain a full-time resident judge here.
But their pleas fell on deaf ears as Barb Morgan, president of the District of Rainy River Law Library Association, noted last week she recently received word the relocation will go ahead.
“We’ve been advised that the judicial vacancy for the Rainy River District is being relocated to Kenora,” Morgan remarked, saying the position has been advertised but they have not yet appointed a new judge.
“And I don’t anticipate that that will happen for some time,” she added.
The relocation plan was put into motion by the Ontario Court of Justice in December when it decided not to replace Judge Thomas McKay when he moves to London, Ont. at the end of this month.
It means Kenora District will increase its number of resident judges from three to four while Thunder Bay has six, leaving Rainy River District with none.
“The lawyers are extremely disappointed,” Morgan stressed, citing it’s already having an impact on services.
She said Marc Bode, Regional Senior Judge for the North West Region, has scheduled a meeting with lawyers here, and separately with local municipal leaders and First Nations’ representatives on June 1.
Morgan expects Justice Bode will indicate at that meeting what his plan is to alleviate what local lawyers consider will be gaps in service that likely will extend for some time.
In a letter written to Morgan by Justice Bode 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 Morgan said the lawyers remained concerned.
“We’re already waiting six-eight weeks for family court dates,” she noted.
She hopes Justice Bode’s plan to cover the judicial needs of Rainy River District does not include videoconferencing.
“As a practising lawyer, I can tell you that videoconferencing is a very, very poor substitute,” she remarked.
Morgan said she had a videoconference recently where the phone lines didn’t work, the video was not adequate, and conversations could not be heard.
“And it limits public access to justice because it’s in a private room. . . . People are entitled to be present in a courtroom for most matters,” she explained.
“And when you have everything by video, it quite constrains access to the public.”
Morgan anticipated the June 1 meeting with Justice Bode will outline the approach that’s going to be taken regarding covering judicial matters.
But Fort Frances CAO Mark McCaig and Tammy Ryell, executive director of the Fort Frances Chiefs Secretariat, haven’t received much information regarding the scheduled meeting, noting the e-mails have been “vague.”
Morgan said it’s unfortunate the decision to relocate was made and that stakeholders are disappointed because the district bar, along with the municipalities and local First Nations, never were offered an opportunity to meet face-to-face and have either the Regional Senior Judge or the Chief Justice attend here.
She added invitations were extended a number of times.
“I’m not saying that that would have made the decision any different, but I think people would have felt they had some meaningful input in the process,” Morgan reasoned.