Brampton judge rips into court staff

The administration of justice is in jeopardy because of incompetent court staff and other serious problems, including outdated recording equipment, within the Peel court system, says a Brampton judge.Because or this situation, trials are being adjourned, delayed, or repeated, Superior Court Justice Ron Thomas charged late last month before starting a hearing into problems at the A. Grenville & William Davis Courthouse.
"There's a serious cancer in this criminal justice system involving the incompetence of staff within this building who are responsible for transcripts from recordings in the courtroom," he said, during a hearing that is dealing with concerns about some recent court cases.

Tapes containing verbal evidence have been erased or lost, say court reporters, monitors, and supervisors testifying at the hearing. One court monitor testified she knew of four incidents in which technical difficulties have caused problems, including missing police testimony.

The acting supervisor of court reporters in the Brampton courthouse testified that the 54 court reporters and monitors on staff are overworked and due dates to have tapes transcribed are not being met.

David Acri, president of the Peel Law Association, says he thinks this is a situation that has become newsworthy and isn't necessarily representative of what's happening in Brampton.

"Ultimately, from anything I've heard, the vast majority of things proceed the way they're supposed to, although the deadlines and the pressures on reporters become greater all the time," he says.

Acri says the technology being used at the Brampton courthouse, as well as in the Peel Small Claims Court where he sits as a deputy judge, is outdated.

Vincent Houvardas, president of the Peel Criminal Lawyers' Association, agrees.

"It's pretty obvious that the systems seem to be a little bit outdated if they're using tape as opposed to digital recording," he says.

Brendan Crawley, spokesman for the Ministry of the Attorney General, says the tape-management procedures and processes in Brampton have recently been improved to address local concerns with regard to care, custody, and control of the recordings.

"We've also implemented a transcript order tracking system in Brampton to ensure that orders are processed in a timely matter and management continually monitors transcript production and adjusts staff schedules as needed to ensure that monitors and reporters have adequate time to prepare transcripts," he says.

Crawley says the ministry will be piloting an advanced digital recording system starting later this year as well as conducting province-wide training sessions.

"In addition to ongoing training programs, the ministry will be providing a major refresher training program for all 2,000 court staff including court monitors and reporters," he says.

Acri says there is some frustration going around about a lack of resources at one of Ontario's largest courthouses.

"Peel is a massive community. It's a massively growing community. According to Justice S. Bruce Durno, who's our regional senior justice, we're something like third from the top of the list in terms of population, and something like third from the bottom of the list in terms of a judicial complement," he says.

"I know that in my capacity as part of the regional bench-and-bar committee as well as the Superior Court bench-and-bar committee, there's a lot of frustration that comes from basically operating at half staff."

Houvardas agrees and says these recent incidents highlight the funding problem in Peel.

"My take on it is that if the attorney general doesn't upgrade the systems they are risking appeals from wrongful convictions that may have stemmed from faulty recordings," he says.

Acri says it boils down to a claim for resources, and because Peel's courthouse is relatively new, it may not register on the ministry's radar.

The ministry is continuing with its courthouse construction and renovation projects that will provide for courthouse consolidation and replacement projects in Pembroke, Durham Region, and Waterloo; courthouse construction projects in Quinte, St. Thomas, and Thunder Bay; and continuing courthouse improvements in London, Cobourg, Cornwall, and Sarnia.

"I've written to the attorney general and said, 'Come on out to Brampton. Have a sit down with us and look around and see what we're doing to cope with what we have and what we need to serve this region," Acri says.

"It's really a matter of money and resources to avoid frustration, and if judges are becoming that irritated where they're hauling people in and tarring and feathering them, you have to think about the litigants and what their frustrations are."

The latest incident is just one of several that have plagued the Brampton courthouse in the past few years.

Justice Casey Hill delivered a sharp judgment in November 2005 in R. v. Sidhu, which found the courthouse had been using, since its opening in 2000, unskilled interpreters who were routinely failing the provincial accreditation test.

Casey called the situation "a critical threat to justice," which came to light during the trial of Avtar Sidhu, a Punjabi-speaking man who was convicted in June 2003 of several counts of assault causing bodily harm and sentenced to six months in jail.

More recently, a settlement agreement was reached in April that avoided a long, difficult, expensive, and potentially embarrassing public discipline hearing for a Brampton justice.

Justice Marvin Morten was accused of being "rude, insulting, and disrespectful toward his judicial colleagues" and "voicing disparaging and insulting opinions in open court".

Two complaints were brought forward to the Ontario Judicial Counsel in 2003 by senior justices Timothy Culver and Ian Cowan relating to alleged incidents occurring between April 2000 and May 2004.

The settlement meant Morten, 62, was allowed to keep his job but no longer sit at the courthouse on Hurontario Street.

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