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Former lawyers file complaint with Manitoba Human Right Commission over courthouse accessibility

Unploughed snow, inaccessible washrooms, and heavy doors at heart of issue forcing them to leave practice

Former lawyers file complaint with Manitoba Human Right Commission over courthouse accessibility
Two former Winnipeg lawyers say inaccessible courthouses and court rooms made it difficult to practice law.

Two former Winnipeg lawyers living with disabilities have each filed a complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission detailing how many Manitoba court buildings are inaccessible, a situation that made it virtually impossible for them to pursue their livelihood.

Mike Reimer and Peter Tonge allege that an “attitude of indifference” exists within the Manitoba justice system including the Province of Manitoba, the Court of Queen’s Bench, the Provincial Court and the Law Society of Manitoba to “rectify these historic and ongoing issues.”

They say this indifference violates sections 13, 9(1)(a)(d) and 9(2)(l) of the Manitoba Human Rights Code. The complaints also say the discrimination extends beyond practicing lawyers in Manitoba to articling students and law students with physical disabilities who are experiencing barriers to full participation in Manitoba's legal profession.

Not only that, Tonge and Reimer say the problem extends to members of the public who have business with the courts, so they hope to trigger regulatory changes that would force the province to make the structures accessible for everyone.

Reimer, who requires the use of a wheelchair, was called to the bar in June 2018. He left the profession at the end of 2019, after repeatedly encountering barriers to working in the Winnipeg Law Courts building and at rural courthouses, he says.

He worked as a criminal defence lawyer and now says he frequently was prevented by unploughed snow from attending court or client sat the Winnipeg Remand Centre. Despite a letter to the Provincial Court's Chief Judge and an assurance the ploughing situation would improve, Reimer says that never happened.

“At a very basic level, there needs to be some assurance that courthouses have some sort of wheelchair access,” Reimer says. It is not just about me, but other members of the public, whether they are the accused, witnesses, support staff, or just citizens who want or need to be in court.”

David Ireland, a University of Manitoba Law professor who represents Tonge and Reimer, says the barriers at the various court facilities for those with disabilities “is discrimination against people with mobility issues from joining the legal profession and practising law, but it goes far beyond that.”

“It is clear that persons with disabilities in Manitoba currently experience an adverse impact in terms of their right to equally access Manitoba court facilities, services and programs throughout the province.”

In 2011, an accessibility audit of the Winnipeg Manitoba Law Courts was conducted by Brian Everton for Manitoba Infrastructure and Transportation. The audit found “these two interconnected buildings have some major barriers to people with disabilities…staff members have described the current practice of undertaking extraordinary actions when some people have encountered barriers to services or facilities at the site. Change to the built environment could mitigate many of the barriers to equal access and accommodation.”

The Everton Report was obtained through a Freedom of Information request, with many sections redacted. The Manitoba government has not made it available to the public.

Ireland, Tonge and Reimer say Canadians impacted by disabilities are a significant and growing group. The national Canadian Survey on Disabilities surveys Canadians aged 15 and over whose everyday activities are limited because of a long-term or health-related problem. In 2017, the survey found 22% of Canadians had one or more disabilities. The survey also showed that 234,190 or 24.8% of Manitobans reported having one or more disabilities.

Born with cerebral palsy, Tonge worked as a lawyer in Winnipeg for more than a decade before he retired in 2018.  “I felt the attitude was that I was welcome as long as they didn’t have to do anything for me.”

He adds he was denied opportunities to work for Legal Aid Manitoba in circuit courts in other areas of the province because many of the court buildings in rural and northern Manitoba are not wheelchair friendly. As well, travel to some of the communities requires boarding small aircraft or boats.

Reimer says that even at the Winnipeg courthouse, the largest in the province, some courtrooms lack automatic door-openers and are too small to navigate a wheelchair comfortably.

As just one example of the type of situations he encountered as a lawyer, Reimer said a trial he was working on outside Winnipeg had to be moved to a different community because there was no wheelchair ramp. He even offered to have the sheriff’s officers carry him up the stairs but was told sheriff’s officers couldn’t help carry him up the stairs for insurance liability reasons.

On another occasion, in October 2019, Reimer attended court in Amaranth, Manitoba, a two-hour drive from Winnipeg. While he could enter the courthouse without issue, the courthouse did not have a wheelchair accessible bathroom, forcing him to use one at an RCMP station outside of Amaranth. (An accessible bathroom has since been made in the Amaranth Courthouse.)

Tonge has his own stories, and among the most striking “from an attitude point of view” is one in which, while waiting for a verdict in a jury trial Tonge was told all lawyers were expected to return to court within 20 minutes if called for. Tonge asked for more time, as it usually takes 20 minutes alone for him to put his robes on. “The response from the bench was, ‘Then you should stay in your robes,’” he says.

To this day, Tonge says, the Winnipeg courthouse remains “an inaccessible place for people with physical disabilities.”

“The outside entrances do not have door openers. The washrooms on the working floors have not been updated. Toilet accessibility is a single large stall, without door openers or assists that are now required by the building code. Interior doors are large and heavy. Smaller courtrooms provide little room to manoeuvre a mobility device.”

Tonge says Manitoba Courts did undertake a renovation project several years ago, and he was asked to attend a meeting to offer suggestions. He says his access priorities were the outside doors and a modernization of the washrooms on the working floors. “I was told that those items were not being considered.”

He adds the latest renovations “remain inadequate and present an ongoing discriminatory barrier for persons with disabilities.” Main washrooms are not accessible. Door openers were added but not on the most frequently used courtrooms.

Ireland says that launching a complaint with the Human Rights Commission comes after his clients have “asked nicely” for a long time, and that has not worked. What is as concerning as the actual physical barriers that Reimer and Tonge and many others face are the attitudinal issues that make those with disabilities feel unwelcome in the justice system.

In response to the complaints, a statement from Manitoba Justice reads: “The Manitoba government is committed to ensuring justice stakeholders, members of the public and communities have safe and accessible spaces for court proceedings. Work is ongoing across the province to improve existing spaces and address any deficiencies if/when they arise. A number of projects are complete or currently underway to support accessibility in spaces for court proceedings.”

Reimer and Tonge's complaints are registered with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, then served on the respondents and complainants. Investigators are then assigned by the MHRC to investigate the complaints. Ireland says he is under “no illusions” that the matter will be dealt with quickly, as the Commission has a lot on its plate.

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