A group of New Brunswick lawyers have launched legal action to prevent at least two court closures in the province.
St. Andrews lawyer David Bartlett filed a motion Oct. 7 on behalf of the Charlotte County Barristers’ Society, seeking that a budget decision to close certain courthouses announced in March be quashed or suspended. Bartlett says he will be filing another motion seeking a temporary injunction in the next two weeks to stop the closures, pending the hearing of his Oct. 7 motion.
Courts in Sussex and Grand Falls were put on the chopping block and have already ceased operations, Bartlett explained, while the two he is trying to save in Grand Manan and St. Stephen’s are winding down with no caseload scheduled after Oct. 23.
“It’s baffling,” Bartlett says.
The court in St. Stephen’s “is a full-blown court” and central for the very rural county. It contains offices for the judges, youth court services, a law library, probation and victim services and the department of mental health. Bartlett said those services won’t be as accessible if court services are consolidated at a new courthouse in St. John, a one-and-a-half to four-hour drive for most of its population. Added to the travel issue is that the county covers three islands, including Grand Manan, that can only be accessed by additional lengthy ocean ferry rides.
“Charlotte County is a very rural area, it’s also a poor area and a lot of people simply don’t have cars. It’s an hour-and-a half to four hours minimum for over half our population in St. Stephen’s to drive to the new court house in St. John and on top of all of this there is no public transit,” Bartlett says. “The RCMP here will be the highest paid taxi drivers in the world.”
Bartlett explained in 2007 the provincial government of the day closed some smaller satellite courts and was looking to establish if more courts could be closed. He says a task force was formed at the time and two Law Society representatives were chosen as members, “but that task force never met.”
Bartlett said the society was ensured by the provincial powers that before any court closure there would be advance consultation, and if a court was deemed fit for closure, there was to be a year delay before implementation.
He said this past March when the Ministry of Finance announced the closures it came as a surprise.
“There was no advance notice whatsoever,” he says, adding part of his process now is finding out exactly who made the decision to close the courts and on what grounds. He says there is a request for disclosure seeking that information.
“We don’t know where that decision [to close the courts] was made and that’s part of our application, seeking disclosure. It’s like trying to scale a glass wall with no finger holds.”