The provincial government has announced the closure of three courthouses in eastern Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, as part of their 2015-16 budget. The courts in question are satellite facilities in Guysborough, Port Hood, and Baddeck, and cases that would have otherwise been heard at these locations will now be heard in regional Justice Centres.
This is going to present some serious access to justice difficulties for rural Nova Scotia, and is a decision that should be reversed.
With much greater distances to travel, many people (including accused persons, civilian and RCMP witnesses, and community members) will have difficulty participating in our justice system. Transportation costs are prohibitive over the distances involved, and public transit options are very limited if available at all.
It appears the changes were ill-considered, and certainly no meaningful local consultation took place prior to the closures being announced. No mitigation plans were presented to allow (for example) brief court appearances by video, nor indeed to offset in any way the impact this will have on places such as Pleasant Bay, Cheticamp, Canso, and other places that will now be more than two hours away from a Justice Centre (in clear weather).
The reasons given by Justice Minister Lena Metlege Diab for closing down the courthouses are open to question. The government has understated the usage these courthouses receive (only using figures for Provincial Court plea dates, rather than including the additional dates for supreme, family, and small claims court matters in total) and overstated any relevant security concerns (there are none, and in the cases of Guysborough and Port Hood, recent renovations have taken security issues into account).
Finally, the claim there will be more court time available with judges and staff not having to travel is simply false. Court starts at 9:30 a.m. wherever it sits.
It is true, as the minister claims, that no job losses in the justice system will result from this decision. The lawyers, court staff, and judges who travel to these satellite locations are generally based in the towns where the regional Justice Centres are located. Nevertheless, there is strong support among all of these justice system participants to have the courts continue to sit in these satellite locations destined for closure.
The relatively small savings from these closures will be shouldered by those who must now do the travelling to the regional Justice Centres in Antigonish and Port Hawkesbury; by restaurants and other small businesses in the communities where court will soon no longer be held; by small RCMP detachments that will have to manage more days with officers far from the communities they serve; and by the municipalities that rented space to the provincial justice department in their existing facilities.
The overall economic benefit of this decision (if there is one once those costs are included) is insignificant within the context of a provincial budget.
There is a further, more subtle, benefit to both the communities in question and the justice system by having the participants travel to the areas outside the regional centers. Being in a place, and visiting it regularly, helps judges and lawyers have a more fulsome and nuanced understanding of that place, and the people there who come before the courts, and for whom so many decisions and judgment calls will be made.
From an access to justice perspective, it is particularly troubling that these locations were chosen for closure, given that in these smaller centers, the connection between the community and the court is perhaps at its strongest.
In my experience, travelling the “circuit,” these satellite facilities (including another recently closed local satellite location in Arichat) had the largest crowds of citizens on hand observing the proceedings. I believe this reflects the more close knit nature of rural communities, and should not be lightly dismissed.
Justice must not only be done, but also must be seen to be done, so that citizens understand that they are living in a society where they can depend on the rule of law. As these satellite courthouses close, justice will become more distant, both as a practical reality and as a foundational notion in our rural communities.
Adam Rodgers is a partner with Boudrot Rodgers in Nova Scotia and president of the Strait Area Barristers Society. Follow him on Twitter @AdamRodgersNS.