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Thousands of charges at risk due to JP shortage

|Written By Jennifer McPhee

Provincial offences courts across the Greater Toronto Area continue to sit empty because of a chronic justice of the peace shortage, and serious cases are at risk of stays because long wait times are resulting in charter applications, say lawyers for cities and regions in the GTA.

According to City of Mississauga documents, the city will close roughly 63 per cent of its POA court sittings in the coming year. Many serious, already-scheduled Highway Traffic Act offences given priority because of delays will be adjourned or withdrawn. Approximately 6,200 charges are in jeopardy of being dismissed in the first half of this year, and 24,00 charges won't be scheduled because of lack of trial time.

Most matters in POA court in Mississauga are 14 months old, and in danger of being stayed because of the delays.

Word is getting out among those facing POA charges that there is a severe shortage, says Mississauga's city solicitor Mary Ellen Bench. In 2006 alone, Mississauga courts received almost 1,200 Charter applications for delay.

"It's becoming a serious issue," she says. "We are trying to do our best in terms of scheduling, but there's only so much we can do.

"We are having a great deal of difficulty impressing on the province the seriousness of the situation. No new appointments have been made in several months, although I am advised by our court manager that we have had a per diem JP attend in court on occasion, which has helped us deal with some of the cases that would otherwise have to be adjourned because a JP was not available."

Brian Roy, regional solicitor for the Regional Municipality of Durham, addressed the issue at a meeting of GTA mayors and regional chairs on Jan. 19.

"It's affecting the whole of the GTA and Hamilton," he says. "It was obvious from the comments from the mayors that it is widespread. The [mayors] are very cognizant of the issue, which means it's on their radar screens. They are very disappointed that the situation has deteriorated to the point that it has."

The mayors and chairs endorsed a resolution asking Attorney General Michael Bryant to immediately appoint sufficient justices of the peace to resolve the shortage. The letter will be sent to other parties, including Premier Dalton McGuinty, Ontario Court Chief Justice Brian Lennox, and members of opposition parties.

"We asked him to work with the Ministry of Finance to identify new resources and address the shortage in the upcoming 2007-2008 budget. And we asked him to develop a replacement strategy for future justice of the peace retirements so further shortages don't occur."

Justices of the peace are often pulled away from POA courts to deal with higher-priority criminal matters such as bail hearings, he says.

 "We're sort of at the bottom of the totem pole," says Roy.

Based on available resources, 520 of the 920 requested sittings were allotted to Durham's five courts last year, but 38.5 per cent of these allowed court dates were eventually cancelled.

When new appointments do happen, says Roy, courts don't immediately gain relief because it takes between six months to a year of training before a justice of the peace is able to preside independently.

In November, Mississauga's mayor Hazel McCallion wrote a letter to McGuinty about appointments of 21 per diem justices of the peace, and the passage of the Access to Justice Act.

In her letter, she said her initial guarded optimism about these developments was quickly dashed when Mississauga received its drastically reduced 2007 court schedule.

In 1999, the province downloaded the administration and prosecution of various provincial offences onto the municipalities and all parties signed a memorandum of understanding with the province that stated: "The confidence of the public in the justice system must be maintained through every effort by all parties. To this end, open access to the system and a fair and timely process must be assured."

Municipalities were required to "provide, at minimum, the same services and level of service delivery as were provided by the attorney general before the transfer."

But the province has defaulted on its obligations, wrote McCallion in her letter.

Ministry of the Attorney General spokesperson Brendan Crawley says the scheduling and assigning of justices of the peace is up to the judiciary.

"The judiciary has determined that criminal hearings such as bail hearings take priority over POA matters."

However, the attorney general has appointed 39 new justices of the peace since coming into office and has made six part-time, non-presiding justices into full-time presiding JPs, he says.

"And there are more appointments coming."

The ministry is also working with the judiciary to set an appropriate number of justices of the peace for the province. "There is no complement at the moment."

In addition, the recently passed Access to Justice Act reforms the justice of the peace system to improve the operation of the court by providing for per diem JPs to be dedicated on a temporary basis to specific matters such as POA proceedings. Twenty-one new per diem justices of the peace were designated in November.

"These JPs are officially authorized for assignment across the province," says Crawley. "And we understand that the Ontario Court of Justice began to assign them to POA proceedings in Toronto about three days later."

He adds that the act will also ensure that all future appointees are presiding JPs who can hear a broader range of matters than non-presiding JPs, including trials under the POA. And, for the first time, retired justices of the peace can be assigned by the Ontario Court of Justice to preside over criminal and POA matters on a temporary basis to help manage caseload.

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