Strong reaction to court closure
In a budget full of cuts across the board, there’s a notable one set to impact the Trinity-Conception-Placentia area’s justice system.
Harbour Grace Provincial Court is one of four courts in Newfoundland and Labrador that will be shut down, a move expected to save government over $800,000 in this fiscal year and $1.3 million annually thereafter. Wabush is also losing its provincial court, and supreme courts in Grand Falls-Windsor and Grand Bank are closing as well. The court in Harbour Grace has seven full-time staff and one part-time employee.
Nick Summers, provincial director for the Newfoundland and Labrador Legal Aid Commission, said his office did not have any inside information on the court closures.
“We’re as surprised as anyone else,” he told The Compass on budget day last Thursday.
Speculating on what this move could entail, Summers knows provincial courts closed in the past have been used as circuit courts where a judge would appear intermittently to hear cases. That’s how the courthouse in Placentia is used.
“This is not based on anything I’ve heard, but it would be hard to see how they could run (Harbour Grace) as a circuit,” Summers said, pointing out the historic 19th-century courthouse building is not fit to use without substantial investment. Otherwise, he said the province doesn’t appear to own a property suitable for a circuit court.
The other likely alternative would be to move all cases heard in Harbour Grace to St. John’s.
“I think it’s going to be extremely inconvenient for everyone,” Summers said when asked about that possible outcome.
“It’s not the longest distance that they’ve required people to move when they’ve closed down courts in the past. They’ve closed down quite a number of courts on the south coast of Newfoundland, and people have to travel a considerable distance to get to court. On the Northern Peninsula, people have to travel hundreds of miles in order to get to court. So it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that they’ll require people to go into St. John’s to attend court.”
George Simmons, a retired police officer in Bay Roberts who served as a sergeant in charge of operations for the former Trinity Conception detachment, said if such a change were made during his time with the RCMP, it would have impacted his work considerably. He expects the likeliest move will be to transfer all matters to St. John’s.
“That means every bit of correspondence and all the court actions and all the prisoners and everything will have to be transferred, relayed,” he said. “Members will have to spend time on the road traveling back and forth for matters as simple as traffic tickets … Unless the court volume has changed out here, that would in my opinion have a very significant impact.”
Simmons also noted it’s possible changes made unbeknownst to him within the court system and RCMP since his retirement several years ago will make such a move as this more manageable for police officers.
The Compass contacted local RCMP for comment and was told to direct inquiries about the court closure to the Department of Justice.
A retired judge who requested not to have his name published said it is clear the province is “living beyond its mean” and needed to make drastic changes. He does however anticipate this move will not be ideal for people who need to make use of the court in Harbour Grace.
“You’re offering services to people, whatever it might be, and they may not necessarily just be for criminal things. They may be for civil matters, family matters. Now people are going to drive an hour or an hour-and-a-half to get somewhere else. So the cost will be absorbed another way.”
The judge also felt sad about the closure, given it casts some doubt over the future of the old courthouse building, which was the oldest public building in use across Newfoundland and Labrador before it closed last December. It was built in 1830. All court matters have since been moved to the renovated Babb Building in Harbour Grace, which the province is renting.
Harbour Grace Provincial Court has occupied the Babb Building since the beginning of January.