Courthouse renovations 'depriving people of fair hearings'
Renovations to inmate cells at the Yellowknife Courthouse have forced RCMP to escort violent criminals through public areas, at times nearly bumping into witnesses or victims.
A large plywood sheet now covers a window at the front of the courthouse. Previously, people had been climbing up to the ledge to see relatives in the temporary holding cell within.
The problem of prisoners being escorted through public hallways into court, instead of via secure backroom passages, recently saw justices of the peace order all adult male prisoners to appear via video link for bail hearings instead.
Female and youth prisoners still receive in-person hearings, as there are no video facilities for them at the North Slave Correctional Complex.
“The defence bar, in general, has concerns over the quality of the hearings being conducted,” said attorney Charles Davison, speaking after he filed a notice of motion in Supreme Court over the situation.
“[Using video links] is a very stop-and-start, delay-plagued process.”
Davison stressed the importance of people attending court in person, with their lawyers, to seek bail. Agreements with the Crown, he said, are often made “right up to the last minute.”
The situation came to a head on June 11 and 12, when the video link order adopted in bail court became known to defence lawyers.
“It was just a blanket, sweeping statement that they were no longer going to allow adult males to appear in person,” said Davison.
A lawyer representing the chief judge of the Territorial Court and justices of the peace, along with one speaking for the territorial government, told court on Monday they believed the situation would be resolved in a short while.
They said a working group – involving courthouse users from the legal community and NWT government – has been developing a solution to better manage bail hearings until renovations to the cell block are complete.
It is not clear if the use of video links for bail hearings – from the North Slave Correctional Complex in the current manner – is in compliance with the Criminal Code.
Justice Shannon Smallwood adjourned the matter until Friday.
The third and final phase in the nearly $1-million modernization project began in March.
Once complete, security and safety of inmates and staff will be improved, those involved in the project say. For example, access and security for sheriffs, RCMP, lawyers, and court staff will be enhanced.
Construction is scheduled to be finished later next month.
A prisoner seen in a window (right) of the Yellowknife courthouse last week. James O'Connor/Cabin Radio
When the project was made public last winter, justice department officials acknowledged there would be more shuttling of prisoners from Yellowknife's jail to court for trials and other appearances. It was also stated there would be more reliance on video conferencing.
However, Davison said, there are often glitches with the video links and with microphones not being muted at the appropriate times.
The camera angles are inappropriate, he said, and it can be difficult for all parties to hear people on phone lines who have stepped up to be a surety for those facing charges.
The territorial government also secured a new stationary prisoner transport vehicle, intended to be used to house certain inmates. It was acquired from the Alberta sheriff’s office at little cost but has been sparsely used, especially in colder weather.