Local judge enables more responsiveness to needs of bar and other stakeholders, says lawyer
The Rainy River District Law Association has spent years advocating for the Ministry of the Attorney General to appoint a judge to sit at the Ontario Court of Justice in Fort Frances, Ont., a town in northwestern Ontario right at the border with Minnesota and 355 km southeast of Winnipeg.
Rather than having a judge who lives and works in the community, Fort Frances’ court has been covered by judges from the neighbouring district of Kenora.
“That puts certain constraints on your ability to convene a court sitting,” says Douglas Judson, president of the Rainy River District Law Association and Chair of the Federation of Ontario Law Associations.
The Kenora judges must travel two-and-a-half hours to get to Fort Frances in the morning and then drive home at the end of the day. Judson says that some judges do not travel in the dark for personal reasons, which further limits the court’s sitting time. He says this has led to more adjournments and longer timelines to resolve matters, and it also takes judicial resources away from Kenora when judges are on the road between the two communities.
The lack of a local judge also compromises the continuity of a case, says Peter Howie, who practises criminal, family, and child protection law in Fort Frances at Judson Howie LLP.
“When a local judge presides in a small community, they get to know the files and have continuity from court appearance to court appearance,” he says. “And that really, I think, helps to ensure that matters move forward [more] efficiently than having a different judge at every court appearance.”
The introduction of Zoom for virtual hearings has allowed matters to be heard in Fort Frances without an in-person judge, but there remain logistical challenges with documents.
“When your judge isn’t based in your courthouse, there's a lot more running around to get the materials – many of which are still filed on paper – to the right judge when the judge that was hearing the matter is hundreds of kilometers away from the court where the material was filed,” says Judson.
“All of these things create barriers to getting people through the court system. They drive up costs to the parties, they drive up costs to the system,” he says. “Ultimately, they undermine confidence in the administration of justice when things aren't moving smoothly.”
On Sept. 18, the province announced the appointment of Justice Terry Peter Waltenbury to the Ontario Court of Justice. Chief Justice Sharon Nicklas assigned Waltenbury to Fort Frances. It is the first time a judge has been assigned to the town since 2012.
Outside of the courthouse, having a judge living in the community who is developing process and is more responsive to the needs of the bar and other justice system stakeholders enhances access to justice and ensures the system is responsive to local needs, says Judson.
In an announcement, the Rainy River District Law Association thanked their local MPP Greg Rickford, Attorney General Doug Downey, and Chief Justice Nicklas for supporting and understanding their needs.
Judson says there is a growing demand on the courts in northwestern Ontario and unique legal needs in the far north and some fly-in communities. “When this new judicial allocation was made to the northwest, and there was an agreement that it could be based in Fort Frances, we were absolutely delighted.”
Judson says the post-COVID move to virtual proceedings aided his argument. He says the province pushed back on his association, saying that a small community such as Fort Frances could not produce the case volume to justify a full-time judge. But now, with virtual hearings, he notes that the judge can hear matters from anywhere else in the province if there is a lull locally.