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Justice

Stalled justice system gets into gear this week in Yellowknife


The logjam in Yellowknife courts caused by Covid-19 restrictions is being broken up this week as hundreds of cases move forward.

People not in custody facing charges in NWT Territorial Court – including property crimes, driving offences, frauds, assaults, sex crimes, drug trafficking, aggravated assaults, and many breaches of court orders – are having their stalled cases rescheduled.

The hearings are being held for the first time at the downtown Tree of Peace Friendship Centre, as the court’s other options away from the capacity-restricted courthouse were otherwise occupied.

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The week-long push is being handled in alphabetical order. People whose last names start with A through to G had their cases heard on Tuesday. H to N are proceeding on Wednesday, and so on.

While there were 64 people on the docket on Tuesday and 88 on Wednesday, the majority did not have to appear in person as their lawyers could speak for them. Most lawyers are funded through Legal Aid and handle several cases at once.

“The larger numbers are due to the lengthy cancellation of court due to the Covid outbreak in Yellowknife,” said NWT Department of Justice spokesperson Ngan Trinh.

“It is a balancing act when considering to move court, as it can be difficult to ensure that all the persons who must attend are made aware of the change in venue.”

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Chief Judge Robert Gorin asked the clerk to keep close watch on the schedule being created, so as not to have too many people appear at one time given mandated capacity limits.

“There have been some significant adjustments required,” Gorin told the court at one point on Tuesday afternoon.

“I’m just making sure we aren’t running into a hiccup.”

Docket appearances for all adults and youth who are in custody have been be heard in Territorial Court by video, often with defence lawyers and Crown prosecutors appearing over the phone. Most trials, preliminary inquiries or other hearings were cancelled in a notice issued on October 15.

Lawyers speaking to Cabin Radio said their clients were pleased to see their cases move forward. But worries exist over a legal system still significantly clogged after a year and a half of various pandemic-related restrictions.

Many of the more serious cases now being heard in Territorial Court will move to NWT Supreme Court, which is also backed up.

This is especially true for pending jury trials, which currently number near 80 across the NWT. That represents a slight reduction over the past couple of months, as some accused are re-electing to be tried by judge alone or plea arrangements are being completed.

“Something’s going to have to happen with those,” said one lawyer of those trials, asking not to be named.

Under Canadian law, the Jordan framework – which assesses whether an accused is tried within a reasonable time – sets 30 months as the limit in Supreme Court. Exceptions can be made under limited circumstances. Some other jurisdictions in Canada have not counted pandemic-related scheduling delays against that 30-month limit.

Most of the jury trial backlog involves charges laid in 2020 and 2021 but several date from 2019, with one murder trial dating back to 2018 and a sexual assault charge from 2016 still to be tried.

Last month, Crown prosecutor Blair McPherson told Chief Justice Louise Charbonneau he was concerned over the delay in the case of the man accused of murdering Breanna Menacho.

“We’re looking at mid-fall 2022 when the clock is up,” McPherson said in a scheduling hearing.

Devon Larabie is accused of killing the 22-year-old on the night of May 5, 2020, during a gathering in his Lanky Court apartment in Yellowknife.

Delays in court proceedings across the NWT started to mount after the initial pandemic-related slowdown in the late spring of 2020. This fall’s fresh Covid-19 outbreak led to the suspension of trials in Territorial Court and delays on a case-by-case basis in Supreme Court.

The first jury trial in the NWT since the pandemic’s onset started last week in the Explorer Hotel’s main convention hall. The hotel is being used because the courtroom that ordinarily hosts jury trials does not have enough space to allow the minimum two-metre physical distancing required by the chief public health officer.

Members of the public wanting to attend a trial are required wear a mask, use hand sanitizer, and observe physical distancing.

That sexual assault trial ended up being switched to judge-alone on Friday after the jury had heard testimony for several days. An issue came up during testimony that could have required the Crown to seek an adjournment.

Instead of having the 14 people chosen for jury duty being sent home and placing their lives on hold – or having a mistrial declared – the accused agreed to have the rest of the case heard by the judge alone.

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