Harbour Grace loses court in budget
Local lawyer critical of government, says it should revisit decision
In a surprising move, the provincial government announced Harbour Grace will lose its courthouse in order to save money. It’s one of four courts set to close in Newfoundland and Labrador as a result of the budget. News of the court’s closure didn’t sit well with some, as you’ll find out in a few stories in this week’s paper.
The closure of Harbour Grace Provincial Court boils down to infrastructure and financial considerations, according to the provincial justice minister.
“When you look at the courthouse, the historic building, and you’re looking at a multimillion dollar fix, it’s just not feasible,” Andrew Parsons told The Compass Friday, one day after the release of the provincial budget.
Provincial court staff moved out of the historic courthouse, built in 1830, last December and now occupy space in the Babb Building in Harbour Grace. Structural issues with the old courthouse forced government to move staff out before the winter.
Now, Harbour Grace Provincial Court is one of four courts earmarked for closure, a move that will save the province $1.3 million annually starting in the next fiscal year. Renovations at the Babb Building prior to moving in cost the province $48,000, and the annual lease on the property is approximately $280,000. Parsons cited significant lease costs as another factor in government’s decision.
The minister said the decision wasn’t an easy one to make. A lawyer himself, Parsons has witnessed the closure of court- houses in his home district of Burgeo-La Poile.
“It’s not something I ever wanted to be associated with, which is closing courthouses, so it was extremely difficult.”
Parsons reckons the changeover to move courtroom proceedings out of Harbour Grace won’t happen until August at the earliest. No decision has been made yet on how exactly cases will be handled once that move takes place, though the establishment of a circuit court like the one in Placentia is on the table.
With Harbour Grace just over an hour’s drive from St. John’s, it seems inevitable government will look at the option of moving cases there.
“There’s still work that has to be done with our courts, our judiciary court administrators, because I realize that this is a significant change from what people are used to,” said the justice minister. “The fact is they’re still talking about the possibility in some places of circuits. That’s one thing that’s being discussed with all courts … There’s more work to be done, obviously, but we’re working with the people involved to figure out the best and perhaps the best way to put it, the least disruptive way to move forward.”
Lawyer doesn’t like it
Defence lawyer Doug Moores has been practicing law in Conception Bay North for over 40 years and has handled lots of cases in Harbour Grace. He admits the old courthouse building outlived its usefulness quite some time ago, but he cannot fathom losing Harbour Grace Provincial Court entirely.
“It’s retrogressive as far as I’m concerned,” Moores said.
Maintaining a regular presence at provincial court, Moores knows all too well how busy it is in Harbour Grace. For the Harbour Grace and Bay Roberts RCMP, he said it will prove inconvenient not to have the courthouse in Harbour Grace. Prisoners in custody are held at the Harbour Grace detachment.
“It’s very convenient for the police … to come to the courthouse in Harbour Grace, do their business and go back to work.”
For whatever amount of money the province might save with this move, Moores said it will prove too costly for the true administration of justice and the public at large. If cases are moved to St. John’s, this will inconvenience witnesses, defendants, and all manner of people who make use of the court’s services. Moores noted the Harbour Grace court serves a large geographic area.
“I think it’s ill-conceived and ill-thought-out, and I’d ask the minister of justice to go back if he can to go over what they’re doing here and see if we can save this,” said Moores.
Parsons said he understands the move will not be popular with the communities impacted by the closure and knows it will place a strain on people who make use of courthouse services.
“It’s a necessary, difficult decision, and it’s one of a lot that were made (in the budget).”
He also expressed concern for staff impacted by the move. The courthouse in Harbour has seven full-time staff and one part-time employee.
“When you’re dealing with people and their jobs, it’s extremely difficult. That’s why none of this is taken lightly … It’s tough on me, so I can only imagine how tough it is on these individuals.”
The 186-year-old courthouse building in Harbour Grace apparently requires millions of dollars in repairs. That fact played a role in government’s decision to close Harbour Grace Provincial Court in last week’s budget.