The Canadian Bar Association plans to pass a resolution this month to urge the government of New Brunswick to reconsider its decision to close four provincial courts.
The government has announced it’s permanently shutting down courts in St. Stephen, Grand Falls, Sussex, and Grand Manan.
The CBA’s draft resolution, which will be discussed at the association’s upcoming mid-winter meeting, says the closure of these courts “undermines access to justice for local residents, in particular the most vulnerable and impoverished residents who cannot travel great distances to attend court.”
If the resolution passes, the CBA will also call on the attorney general of the province to conduct “a comprehensive review of the justice system with a view of maintaining courts in local communities and determining where savings might be made that could additionally fund the justice system in New Brunswick.”
The bar association will also encourage federal, provincial, and territorial governments to consult with it before considering whether to close any court.
St. Andrews, N.B., lawyer David Bartlett, who is pursuing a judicial review of the government’s decision on behalf of the Charlotte County Barristers’ Society, says he lauds the CBA’s plan to get involved.
“They keep saying there is a huge saving to be had,” Bartlett says of the government’s decision to shut down the courts. He adds the province is suggesting there’s a shortage of resources needed to maintain a certain level of security at the courts.
“They’re effectively trading security for access to justice,” he says.
Despite suggestions the court closures will save cash, Bartlett says this decision is in fact costing the province elsewhere.
“Now the RCMP and police cars are being used to transport witnesses to and from Saint John,” he says. “Police officers are being lost to policing work because they’re now traveling an hour-and-a-half to get to court, an hour-and-a-half to get back.”
Without access to the courts in St. Stephen and Grand Manan, it takes the average resident about an hour-and-a-half to attend court in the city, says Bartlett. Those who do not have cars have no other options because there is no public transportation, he adds.
When Bartlett brought a motion for judicial review of the decision in October 2015, the province challenged it on the basis it is statute barred. After the minister of finance mentioned plans to close the courts in a budget speech in March 2015, Bartlett and the barristers’ society failed to bring the judicial review application within the 90-day deadline, the province said. But Bartlett argued the budget speech is a political speech and not an official public announcement of the closures.
A lower court judge agreed with Bartlett and allowed the matter to proceed, but the province will challenge that decision at the court of appeal in March.