As the Ontario government’s spending on court construction declines this year, lawyers in Halton County are sounding the alarm about mould discovered in the walls of the Halton courthouse that’s adding to the strain those working there have already been under.
“We’re potentially in a crisis situation,” says Laura Oliver, past president of the Halton County Law Association.
Earlier this spring, workers discovered mould in Courtroom 10 in the building’s basement, says Oliver. Since then, she says, mould has also turned up in the walls of the library and the men’s and women’s robing rooms, she notes.
The Ministry of the Attorney General is currently assessing the scale of the problem, and the association and other Halton court stakeholders are now awaiting the ministry’s report, according to Oliver. Depending on the report’s findings, stakeholders may decide to hire a private company to do a separate assessment, she says.
After the discovery of mould in the courthouse in Newmarket, Ont., in 2000, the province temporarily shut the building in order to clear it of mould, with cases moved to portables and other courthouses.
The latest issues in Halton arise as lawyers there have been calling for improved court facilities there. They also come as the province’s spending on courthouse construction has fluctuated significantly in recent years, with budgeted amounts set to drop in 2015-16. According to provincial budget documents, construction costs reached $291.9 million in 2011-12, a significant increase from $70.4 million in 2009-10 and $158.4 million in 2010-11. By 2013-14, court construction spending had sunk to $129.7 million. More recent years have seen the decline continue with the province’s estimate for 2015-16 sitting at $77.1 million. Those numbers are higher, however, than a decade ago when expenditures were just $10.3 million in 2005-06.
“We’re routinely trying to advocate for a new consolidated courthouse in Halton, but as far as I know, everybody recognizes that it’s an issue, but there’s no government movement on it,” says Oliver of the spending numbers.
As concerns mount over the mould issue, Oliver says she has heard reports of people who work at the courthouse experiencing respiratory problems. Courtroom 10, which was under renovation to prepare it to take overflow from trials in Brampton, Ont., is now out of service, she notes.
The mould discovery comes at a time when the courthouse already finds itself under considerable strain in terms of both the physical infrastructure and human resources, according to Oliver.
“Generally speaking, the population is growing significantly. The judicial complement hasn’t grown to reflect the increase in caseload,” she says.
“When juries come, they’re sitting in the stairwells while they’re waiting to be canvassed.”
The strain on the courthouse and its judges can mean considerable delay in settling cases, says Oliver. If someone were to start a court action today in family law, she says, the litigants would probably have to wait until November for their first conference with a Superior Court judge.
Meanwhile, the building’s south elevator is out of service for five to six weeks for repairs, meaning people with a disability have to make a special call to request accommodation, Oliver notes. Elevators are “routinely” out of service in the building, she adds.
Last week, Ministry of the Attorney General spokeswoman Heather Visser confirmed the mould discovery in Courtroom 10.
“An independent environmental consulting firm has visited the site and advised that there are no health and safety risks to courthouse users,” she says. “Courtroom 10 is not currently in use, and as a work site, it was sealed off from the rest of the courthouse during the renovations.
“The mould is not actively growing. It was concealed behind walls and found on select areas of drywall and pipe insulation.”
The pipe insulation, she says, contains asbestos, as is common for buildings of the Halton courthouse’s age. “This insulation does not pose a health risk to building occupants as it remained undisturbed during normal building use,” she adds.
“In partnership with Infrastructure Ontario, we will also implement a mould-testing protocol throughout the courthouse, including a comprehensive, building-wide indoor air quality test,” she says.
Michael Ras, spokesman for the County and District Law Presidents’ Association, says the level of satisfaction with the state of courthouses varies considerably across the province. Complaints tend to be rare from communities with relatively new facilities, but an exception is the fast-growing Peel Region. The Brampton courthouse, despite being one of Ontario’s newest, is already “bursting at the seams,” he says.
When it comes to spending on courthouse construction, the relatively high numbers for 2011-12 and 2012-13 were due to the construction of five new courthouses in Durham, Elgin, Waterloo, Quinte, and Thunder Bay, Ont., according to Visser. The projected number for 2015-16 is lower as those courthouses are now complete with only some minor project costs still outstanding, she says. However, the province has also begun major projects including the new Toronto courthouse, security upgrades for the Toronto Osgoode precinct, and an addition to the Brampton courthouse, she says.
As for Halton, Visser says addressing the issues there are a priority. “We recognize that there are ongoing facility challenges in the Halton Region and this remains a priority for the ministry. We will continue to work with our justice sector partners to find ways to address these challenges.”
For related content, see "Lawyers happy as new courthouse moves forward."