While the Rainy River District has one of the highest per capita criminal case loads in northern Ontario, it has been without a sitting judge since 2012.
“We are the only judicial district in the province—perhaps in the country—that does not have its own resident judge,” said Rainy River Law Association president and councilor Douglas Judson, during the Rainy River District Municipal Association (RRDMA) meeting in Emo last Wednesday.
He stressed that the unfilled judge vacancy impacts all town's residents.
Some of the consequences of “whistle-stop justice” by visiting judges are delayed bail hearings and trials, increases in costly adjournments, and increases to policing, jail, and administrative costs, according to Coun. Judson.
This ultimately leads to local and provincial taxpayers shelling out an increasing amount of money to keep the system operating.
“Keep in mind that the Town of Fort Frances bears the costs of court security and any overtime that is necessary when the court sits late,” Coun. Judson remarked.
“That expense has grown by hundreds of thousands of dollars in just a few years—it is one of Fort Frances' single biggest uncontrollable costs.”
The judicial vacancy has led to disjointed hearing schedules and has prolonged the length of time matters are before the court, Coun. Judson said.
“This ultimately drives up the cost to clients who are paying for representation, and puts stress on the strict timelines for prosecuting crimes that the justice system is required to follow,” he explained.
Coun. Judson also highlighted some of the more long-term consequences of not having a residential judge at the RRDMA meeting.
“Not having a full-service court hurts our ability to attract new lawyers to the community who need a full-service court to ground and sustain their practices,” he explained.
“As our local bar ages, we are eventually going to run into service shortages if new lawyers continue to find that there are more attractive practice opportunities in cities like Kenora.”
For many years, the Rainy River Law Association, Town of Fort Frances and other stakeholders have been vocal about the lack of local legal and judicial resources.
“The law association has raised this concern with both the current and previous provincial governments,” Coun. Judson said.
“The current challenge we are facing is that while the provincial government appoints the judges . . . the Regional Senior Justice decides where the judges are to be based.”
Because the discretion of the Regional Senior Justice is not working in favour of the Rainy River District, the law association is proposing that the province pass legislation to tackle the issue.
This legislation would guarantee a minimum of one Crown Attorney and one judge be appointed to and reside in each judicial district in northern Ontario.
“This would not take anything away from any other district, but would ensure that all Ontarians are provided with the same level of access to judicial and prosecutorial services, and efficiency of process,” Coun. Judson remarked.
He said, this would be the type of policy fairness that should guide the allocation of judges - one rooted in equality before and under the law.
“We are a full-service community in most respects. We should not be treated like an inconvenient or remote satellite,” Coun. Judson charged
The Rainy River Law Association would appreciate if the public sent out any letters of support for judicial resources in the district to local MPP Greg Rickford and/or Attorney General Caroline Mulroney.
“Please keep us in the loop on those communications so that we can assert a united front as a district,” Coun. Judson noted.