A senior judge blasted the provincial government Monday for failing to provide sufficient courtroom space in Brampton, which is leading to “very real and unacceptable delays” in the hearing of cases at one of the busiest courthouses in the country.
“The Ontario government — past and present — is either wilfully blind to the erosion of trust caused by its failure to take timely steps to address the facilities crisis in Brampton, or it believes that spending on this courthouse will not result in more votes,” Regional Senior Justice Peter Daley of the Superior Court of Justice said in court.
“Either way, the government’s inaction is unconscionable and inconsistent with its obligations to the public in Peel region.”
The Superior Court hears all civil cases, some family matters and the most serious criminal cases including murder. The lack of space in Brampton — located in one of the fastest-growing regions of the country — has meant that cases have had to be transferred to other municipalities including Milton, Kitchener and Toronto, leading to added delay and extra costs for litigants, Daley said.
“Transferring Brampton cases to other centres has a very real impact on the people who live and work in Peel region,” Daley said. “We have received letters of complaints from lawyers, members of the public and families of litigants who have been unable to attend these other court locations outside of Peel region by public transit, creating real access to justice obstacles.”
As of Nov. 1, the earliest date the court can offer to hear most motions in civil and family matters is eight months down the road, and 16 months for trials lasting more than five days, Daley said. For criminal matters, whether a short or long trial, the earliest date is 10 months from now.
Courts have come under heightened scrutiny to deal with criminal cases in a timely fashion since the 2016 Supreme Court of Canada decision in R v. Jordan set strict timelines to complete such cases before they must be tossed for violating an accused person’s constitutional right to a trial in a reasonable time.
In Superior Court, the time limit is 30 months between a person’s arrest and the anticipated conclusion of their trial. Daley said the court has had to reprioritize cases that would otherwise be at risk of being tossed.
Rarely have judges spoken so forcefully in public on challenges facing their court, but as Daley pointed out, the Superior Court had “engaged all the appropriate channels within the Ministry of the Attorney General to seek timely solutions to the pressing space demands,” but with little success.
(Daley also noted he had invited Attorney General Caroline Mulroney to send a representative to hear his remarks in court Monday, but the invitation was declined.)
In an unusual move, the judge even allowed cameras inside the courtroom to record his remarks prior to the start of the day’s proceedings, “in view of the broad public interest at stake in these issues.” He made clear he was only addressing problems facing the Superior Court and not the Ontario Court of Justice, the lower level of court that hears most criminal cases and also occupies space at the Brampton courthouse.
Compounding the spacing issue is the fact that a new six-floor addition under construction adjacent to the existing courthouse will be mostly empty once it’s completed. Daley said government would only be “fitting out” the basement and first two floors, leaving the remaining four floors a “vacant shell.”
Those first few floors were expected to be completed by now, but will only open around July 2019, Daley said. Even then, he said, no courtrooms will be completed, but only a few “retiring rooms” that could be temporarily used as judges’ chambers.
The judge urged government to approve funding for filling out the remaining four floors as soon as possible.
“It has become clearly evident to all … that the idea of only partially completing the courthouse addition is folly at its highest,” Daley said. “Not only does it not make any economic or practical sense to delay the completion of the remaining floors — this is simply further evidence of the provincial government’s continuing breach of its statutory and constitutional duty to provide appropriate courthouse facilities to this court.”
Daley’s comments were welcomed by legal organizations, who agreed the lack of space is causing serious access to justice issues.
“The long-standing practice of sending cases out of jurisdiction has created a number of obstacles for clients who must bear the costs associated with additional travel expenses and legal fees,” said Daniel Brown, a vice-president of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association. “This practice has also made it more challenging for both the Crown and defence to ensure important witnesses attend trial.”
Jacques Gallant is a Toronto-based reporter covering legal affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @JacquesGallant