“We have been reduced to a whistle stop for justice,” says Barbara Morgan, president of the District of Rainy River Law Association, in quoting from another local lawyer on the matter.
According to the association, in May the Ontario Court of Justice is relocating the judicial appointment to Kenora, Ont., some 225 kilometres away. Morgan notes the situation has been going on for some time with the resident judge, Justice Thomas McKay, having instead chosen to live in Dryden, Ont., since his appointment. But with his request to relocate to London, Ont., the court has decided to make that situation permanent. The move will leave Kenora with four presiding judges, Thunder Bay with six, and the Rainy River district with none, says Morgan.
“It ultimately subordinates the needs of the entire south end of the district,” she says.
The Rainy River court district also includes Fort Frances and Atikokan, Ont., all of which have seen declining numbers of court days with the decreasing availability of judicial resources in recent years, says Morgan. She notes Rainy River now has just five sittings a year.
Morgan believes the change will exacerbate the problem of the greying of the bar in her area since younger lawyers will be reluctant to move to a place without a resident judge. The result, according to Morgan, will be more self-represented litigants.
Morgan notes that during McKay’s tenure in the Rainy River, local lawyers simply found ways to deal with what they thought was a temporary situation.
“Everybody works sort of co-operatively to accommodate the fact that there have been reduced court sittings,” she says, adding that won’t work in the long term. “The lawyers are saying look, ‘We need a resident judge here.’”
Justice Marc Bode, the senior judge for the northwest region, couldn’t be reached for comment by press time, but in a letter to Morgan last week, he said the court bases its decision on factors such as the number of charges and the percentage of matters requiring a trial in any one district. But Morgan argues those numbers are misleading since they don’t include proceedings that now take place by video link and in other locations due to the lack of sitting days. Further, she says those alternatives are problematic since litigants can’t necessarily afford to travel elsewhere for court.
Bode justified the change in his letter. “I am sure you are very conscious of the need to manage judicial resources carefully,” he wrote. “As things currently stand, the judge whose base court is located in Fort Frances is currently required to sit outside the district of Rainy River far more than 50 per cent of his total sitting time. As a court, we need to minimize the judicial time consumed in travelling and spread the responsibility for judicial travel among the judiciary. By identifying either Dryden or Kenora as the next judge’s base court, we are putting the next judge closer to where the greatest current need for judicial services exists.”
Bode also denied the change would affect the amount of judicial sittings in the Rainy River area. “I want to stress once again that it will be the need for judicial services in the district of Rainy River and not the location of any judge’s base court that will determine judicial sitting time in the district,” he wrote.