Cancelled court dates to continue despite new JPs

The province has moved to alleviate a shortage of justices of the peace, making 10 new appointments as municipalities across Ontario struggle to deal with a backlog of Provincial Offences Act charges and cancelled court dates that officials say will continue for the time being.

The problem is particularly acute in northern Ontario, where remote locations exacerbate the shortage.

In Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., the city has had to cancel three provincial offences court sittings in recent months, with another six cancellations slated for December and January.

The situation prompted the city council there to write to the province in August asking it to fill two vacancies that would bring the community up to its required complement of four justices of the peace. The area has been running at half capacity for more than two years after retirements and reassignments left it short.

But only one of the new justices of the peace whose position was announced last week will sit in Sault Ste Marie: Jill Morris, a former social worker who has worked with victims of violence.

Denis Desrosiers, the city’s court liaison supervisor, welcomes the appointment but says that without a legal background, Morris will take some time to make an impact.

“In the short term, it does nothing for us. A justice of the peace can’t preside in provincial offences for 10 to 12 months, according to their training. For it really to truly have an impact, it would have to be someone with legal training.”

Chief Justice Annemarie Bonkalo of the Ontario Court of Justice highlighted the issue at the 2009 Opening of the Courts ceremony.

She blamed the shortage on a “complicated system of central and regional committees” to vet applicants introduced after amendments to the Justices of the Peace Act in 2007.

“I have become concerned that the very complexity of the process has slowed the appointments, leaving some of our regions very short of justices of the peace,” Bonkalo, who couldn’t be reached for comment last week, said at the time.

Barry Randell, director of court services for the City of Toronto and president of the Municipal Court Managers’ Association, says the province is always playing catch-up because of the inflexibility of the appointments process, which only allows for one general call for applications each year rather than advertising specific vacancies.  

“We’d like to see appointments in place ahead of known retirements, but it just doesn’t seem to be something we can rely on,” Randell says.

As a result, a number of regions, including Toronto, Sudbury, York, Durham, and Peterborough are short. Three of the province’s newest appointments went to Randell’s area in Toronto, although he says he needs at least two more justices of the peace. The others went to Ottawa, Newmarket, Hamilton, Windsor, and London.

“People are quick to say that hiring judges and [justices of the peace] is expensive, but it’s also necessary in terms of allowing people access to the courts,” Randell says.

Still, Ministry of the Attorney General spokesman Brendan Crawley touted the latest appointments in an e-mailed statement in which he said the government has increased the number of full-time justice of the peace positions to 345 from 300 since 2003.

“We are committed to ensuring that Ontario courts hearing criminal and Provincial Offences Act matters have adequate resources to operate efficiently and effectively,” he said.

In Cochrane, Ont., the town’s chief administrative officer echoes the concern about preparing for retirements. Jean-Pierre Ouellette says his area is short two justices of the peace, which has been jamming up court schedules.

“There is also overall concern that with coming retirements and, as it may take two years to train a [justice of the peace], there may be a lack of succession planning,” he says.

Eight hours south in the Township of the North Shore, Mayor Heather Pelky says her area suffers from a chronic lack of access to justices of the peace. There were no provincial offences court sittings at all in July or August, for example.

Pelky, who also sits on the local police board, says Ontario Provincial Police officers have to make a four-hour round trip to Sault Ste. Marie to see justices of the peace and file paperwork with them because they so rarely sit in the courts in Blind River, Thessalon, and Elliot Lake that are much closer to home.

“That’s taking away officers who should be here and on the road protecting our area,” she says.
According to Desrosiers, the shortages manifest themselves most often in provincial offences court due to the other functions justices of the peace perform.

They preside over criminal intake and bail courts, which receive higher priority than provincial offence charges under statutes such as the Highway Traffic Act.

The 2007 amendments also allowed retired justices of the peace to sit on a per diem basis in areas where they were needed. In Sault Ste. Marie, courts have been able to function only with their help.

But as Desrosiers has found, Sault Ste. Marie isn’t a preferred destination for many people once winter rolls around when cancellations and backlogs spike.

“They’re retired. They’re under no obligation to work and a lot of them like to travel in the winter and go south, so you lose the per diems,” he says.

According to Randell, the government has leaned too heavily on the per diem justices. “You can’t rely on a retired workforce to fill in for full-time vacancies,” he says.

Still, he hopes amendments to the law tabled earlier this month at Queen’s Park will make the appointments process more efficient. If passed, bill 110, the proposed good government act, would amend the Justices of the Peace Act to allow the attorney general to advertise positions as they become vacant.

“This would allow for vacancies to be posted more frequently than once a year,” Randell tells Law Times. “That should help.”

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