Fort Frances is inside the only judicial district in the province without a sitting judge.
Since 2012 when the community lost Justice Thomas McKay, who was the resident judge, the district has been dependent on visiting judges which has caused an array of problems for those accessing the court system locally.
“I think that the need is obvious,” said Rainy River Law Association president Douglas Judson, who also is a councillor for the Town of Fort Frances.
“We have a very busy court and we have very long dockets.”
The Rainy River District also has one of the highest per capita criminal case loads throughout northern Ontario.
The Rainy River Law Association, along with the Town of Fort Frances, has advocated for McKay's replacement since he left, as it costs the municipality extra money to keep the legal system operating without a sitting judge.
“The town has, for a number of years, been a leading voice in the fight to ensure our district and our community has adequate justice resources and staffing at our local courthouse,” Coun. Judson said during Monday evening's council meeting.
“Part of the reason for that is when we have inadequate resources in the courthouse, the costs fall to this municipal body in many ways and one of those ways is on our agenda tonight, with a new security arrangement under consideration for the court.”
The province's attorney general who replaced Caroline Mulroney in June, Doug Downey, met with the Rainy River Law Association at the end of September, when the issue was directly brought to his attention.
“I was able to express, with the assistance of other members of the local bar, to the attorney general that the lack of a local judge here since 2012 has led to inefficiencies in our court system—that it protracts and prolongs the length of time matters are before the court, that it ultimately costs users of the court money but also puts stress on the strict timelines for criminal prosecution that has been set by the Supreme Court of Canada,” he added.
“But also that on principle, every district and every Ontarian within those districts is entitled to the same level of access to justice and the Rainy River District should not be an exception to that premise.”
Since meeting with Downey, the Rainy River Law Association has sent a follow-up letter and are hopeful for a positive development soon. Downey said that he would speak with Chief Justice of the Ontario Court of Justice Lise Maisonneuve.
“The attorney general was certainly receptive and as an interesting note, he indicated that he is one of the first attorney generals in many decades to actually come to that office from private practice,” Coun. Judson remarked.
“I think he understands the ebb and flow of a court and some of the constraints we're under without these offices filled.”
One of the challenges for finding a justice for the district is that while the cabinet appoints judges, the judiciary decides where they are stationed.
Coun. Judson told the Times the law association thinks the only way this issue is going to be fixed sustainably is if the Courts of Justice Act is amended to require a minimum of one judge and one Crown per district.
“This would be a really good mechanism for the north to make sure that all of the districts have an approximately equivalent level of staffing and access to people in those roles all the time,” he explained.
“Right now that isn't the case and so I question whether there's actually any rhyme or reason as to why we don't have a judge,” Coun. Judson added.
“Why have they decided we don't get someone who's based here versus Sioux Lookout or Dryden? So that's a real challenge.”
Some of the longer-term consequences of not having a sitting judge for Fort Frances is that the court doesn't seem full service where lawyers can run a legal practice.
“People will choose to not practice here and we have an aging bar,” Coun. Judson noted.
“In the next decade, a lot of them are going to choose to wind down their practices or practice not as extensively, and how do you attract new practitioners to come in if it doesn't look like they can have the same quality of practice that they would have in Dryden, Kenora, Sioux Lookout, or even Thunder Bay?”
Of the roughly 16 lawyers in the district, only four of them are under 35 and a majority are well past 55, so in the coming decades it will pose challenges, if the judicial vacancy isn't filled, said Coun. Judson.