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Ontario opens first major crimes court

|Written By Jennifer McPhee

Ontario''s first major crime court, designed to accommodate high-profile gang trials involving multiple defendants, teams of lawyers, and complicated wiretapping evidence, spans two courtrooms on the second floor of 361 University Ave. but much of it is portable.

The mega-trial apparatus, including video screens, 10 counsel tables, and a multiple accused prisoners' box, takes roughly two hours to pack up and store away so the court can continue regular business until the next mega-trial rolls around, and other Ontario courthouses can borrow the equipment if necessary.

The $2.7-million project took three months to complete. The significantly roomier prisoners' box (on the judge's right hand side) is made of wood panels so it can be expanded or quickly dismantled. Some of the defendants may be slightly separated from each other by a partition if they are, for instance, thought to be members of rival gangs still harboring resentment towards each other.

The jury will sit directly across the room from the prisoners' box, and the witness box has a separate enclosed entrance. Down the middle of the courtroom are two rows of shiny wooden counsel tables. A video screen and two microphones are mounted on each of the 10 tables so lawyers can view the often complex and voluminous evidence electronically. Individual video screens also face the prisoner's box, judge, jury, and witness box.

Several big black electronic boxes next to the jury sit on wheels so they can simply be rolled out the door, and courtroom designers managed to avoid a potential eyesore by running the cabling used to operate the electronics underneath the flooring.

Two benches in the back of the courtroom will accommodate additional lawyers, such as articling students. However, the hush that usually falls over the courtroom when defendants enter the room will likely come from the room next door where between 60 and 65 members of the public, including family members and media, will watch on two, 50-inch plasma screens by way of a camera at the back of the main courtroom. The public viewing gallery is simply the public area of the regular courtroom that has been separated from the rest of the courtroom by removable wood paneling.

Beefed up security measures include an on-site office for police to monitor entrances to both courtrooms by way of cameras. Walk-through metal detectors and x-ray machines will be set up at each entrance, and police will also be stationed inside both courtrooms.

A second, similar major crime court is currently under construction at the 2201 Finch Ave. courthouse in north Toronto and is scheduled to open next fall.

The new courtrooms are part of the provincial government's $51-million guns-and-gangs strategy, which includes a host of new initiatives including an expanded gangs-and-guns task force, and a new provincial operations centre to allow for highly co-ordinated prosecutions by bringing all parts of law enforcement under the same roof.

"This is a new courthouse to deal with a new approach to the criminal justice system which is responding and trying to get ahead of new circumstances facing police and the public," says Attorney General Michael Bryant. "I think this is the best use of the taxpayer dollars and allows the flexibility that ought to come with this new approach."

However, Toronto defence lawyer John. S. Struthers says the government is creating an unbalanced justice system where the prosecutorial side has unlimited resources.

"All of the money is being thrown into new prosecutorial services, hiring new Crown attorneys, building new courtrooms, hiring new police officers, having a joint task force of police forces involved," says Struthers who sat on Legal Aid Ontario's Big Case Management exceptions committee this year. "And yet somehow the legal aid budget is supposed to deal with these cases in its current form, and it's just not physically possible.

"Throwing money at the problem in this way is completely unrealistic if there's not a balance."

Last month, LAO forced the issue by deciding to stop paying to defend those facing large scale prosecutions beyond the bail hearing when case budgets exceed $75,000 for a single accused or $500,000 for more than one accused. A few weeks later, it decided to hold off on making any changes until March 1, 2007.

A mid-year review by LAO found that mega-trials has left the system $10-millon over budget this year.

The Ministry of the Attorney General and Legal Aid Ontario have formed a working group to address the funding problem, and former Osgoode Hall law professor John McCamus has been asked to review how legal aid can effectively fulfill its mandate.

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