NWT can do ‘a lot more’ to replace shuttered law library
A Yellowknife lawyer and several MLAs say not enough has been done to replace the NWT’s former law library, harming residents’ access to legal resources and, ultimately, justice.
The NWT’s Department of Justice closed the law library in 2016, making the territory the only jurisdiction in Canada without one. Despite criticism from some lawyers and regular MLAs, then-justice minister Louis Sebert defended the decision, saying the library was too expensive, under-utilized, and that many resources had moved online.
Sebert promised a new resource centre would be more cost-effective while still allowing lawyers and members of the public to access legal resources.
Criminal defence lawyer Paul Falvo, however, says that resource centre – which opened in the Yellowknife courthouse in May 2018 – is inaccessible and under-resourced.
“Few people know about it. I found a couple lawyers last week who didn’t know it existed. I think even fewer members of the public know that it exists,” Falvo said.
“It’s a locked room on the fourth floor of the courthouse, you have to have a key fob to get in. Technically, members of the public can ask for help to get in, but they have to know about it first.”
According to the Department of Justice, the MM de Weerdt Resource Centre has a “small but competent” collection of hard copy materials and two computer workstations with paid subscriptions to two “significant” online legal resources.
Falvo said those computers often haven’t worked or been able to connect to the internet when he has used the resource centre over the past year.
Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson, who has a background as a lawyer, said the resource centre doesn’t allow lawyers to easily look up information or print cases at the courthouse during a trial. It’s also not particularly useful to members of the public, he said.
The Department of Justice said it allocates $50,000 annually to operate the centre – which is not staffed – and to purchase materials. The NWT Law Society also provides some funding. Since it opened in 2018, the department said, 19 members of the public have visited the resource centre.
Comparatively, in 2015, the government spent $467,000 to operate the law library, far outspending its $244,000 budget. That funding paid for a law librarian along with supplies, publications and subscriptions. Sebert said there were 984 visitors to the library that year, who signed out a total of 385 books.
‘We really need to step it up’
In 2016, Kieron Testart, then the MLA for Kam Lake, questioned Sebert about the proposed resource centre. He expressed concern about whether the centre would be just “a few surplus computers in a dimly lit room.” Now he says that tongue-in-cheek comment appears to have become a reality.
“The department did come forward and say, ‘we’re doing this and we want your support and don’t worry, it’s going to be fine,’ and now they haven’t followed through on that,” Testart said of the resource centre. Under consensus government, he said, issues can fall through the cracks from assembly to assembly.
Testart said the lack of a law library or more fulsome resource centre impedes the public’s access to quality justice resources. That’s especially important in the NWT, he said, because of the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system.
“If we are going to take these things seriously and try to reduce our really abhorrent numbers of Indigenous people who are incarcerated from and in the Northwest Territories, we really need to step it up.”
Testart noted there are no law libraries in corrections facilities across the territory, meaning inmates who can’t afford a lawyer aren’t able to do their own research.
According to the Department of Justice, inmates have access to the criminal code and are given help obtaining other legal materials upon request, but they do not have access to the internet. Correctional facilities also provide unlimited access for inmates to visit legal counsel by phone or in person, the department said.
Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly opposed the law library’s closure in 2016 and criticized the delay in opening its replacement resource centre.
He recently told Cabin Radio that while larger law firms may have no issue accessing online databases and other resources, the lack of a law library puts small firms, sole practitioners, and members of the public at a disadvantage.
“Part of the mandate for cabinet in the last assembly was to find ways to increase access to justice. And we did precisely the opposite,” he said.
Having a law library is valuable for lawyers, Falvo explained, as legal books and online subscriptions are costly and can quickly become outdated. After the Yellowknife library closed, he said he spent around $1,000 on books.
“It’s expensive if everybody collectively has to subscribe to and maintain everything when there could be pooled collective resources,” he said.
Johnson said a law library is often the first place the public can turn to for legal information or referral to other legal resources.
“Right now, I think it’s very confusing – if you’re in trouble with the law, if you have a legal question – what step one is in Yellowknife. It’s usually about four different appointments behind closed doors.”
‘A lot more can and should be done’
Falvo said he’d like the territory to reopen the law library, even if only on a part-time basis, and see that it is promoted and open to the public and legal community.
O’Reilly said he’d also like the law library to reopen with a librarian, but he feels that’s unlikely to happen. He said if the territory continues to have a legal resource centre, it should be more accessible to both lawyers and the public, adding he hopes the current justice minister will look into the issue.
“I think there’s a lot more that can and should be done,” he said.
“I guess it does come down to: how much are people willing to pay to increase access to justice?”
Johnson said having a law library is just one part of access to justice. He said there needs to be a more centralized and public-facing centre in the territory where people can more easily access a variety of legal resources. He suggested a staffed law centre at arm’s length from the government, where people can access legal material, get advice, and seek referrals.
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said there are no plans to change the resource centre but the government is open to combining resources to better serve users.