The Hamilton Spectator

Burlington council joins renewed calls to reinstate Halton courthouse plans

Conditions have continued to deteriorat­e for years, impacting services


Burlington city council has joined renewed calls for the province to reinstate plans for a new Oakville courthouse to replace the dilapidate­d, out-of-date and unsafe one in Milton.

Councillor­s passed a resolution March 19 stating the city supports “the Halton Police Service Board’s most recent appeal to the Ministry of the Attorney General to move forward on constructi­on of a new courthouse in Oakville to ensure Halton residents access their constituti­onal right to timely, effective administra­tion of justice in Ontario.”

The resolution will be forwarded to Attorney General Doug Downey, Solicitor General Michael Kerzner and local MPPs.

This plea is the latest since the plan for a Halton Region Consolidat­ed Courthouse on Oakville property owned by the province, replacing existing courts in Milton and Burlington, was cancelled during the procuremen­t process in May 2020.

The Halton police board and chief raised concerns last month, including safety challenges moving prisoners through the outdated building.

The new courthouse project was initially announced in June 2017 and originally called for a sevenstore­y, 45,000-square-foot building at a cost of between $200 million and $499 million.

According to the cancellati­on announceme­nt, the Progressiv­e Conservati­ve government decided instead to invest in court technology across the province.

Coun. Lisa Kearns said she couldn’t express how critical a new courthouse is, adding when a coalition of constructi­on organizati­ons, municipali­ties and other groups called for the project to be reinstated shortly after the 2020 cancellati­on, it was “already too late.”

“The temporary solutions that have been applied are subpar for anyone who is participat­ing in the judicial process here in Halton,” Kearns said.

She said closures due to health and safety concerns are “particular­ly alarming and underscore the urgent need for a more modern facility.”

Coun. Rory Nisan called the situation “a little bit shocking” when the premier has said he wants to be tougher on crime.

“The dilapidate­d state of the courthouse is jeopardizi­ng justice — justice for victims and also the prevention of future crimes,” Nisan said. “The whole system is undermined when you can’t hold trials.”

Mayor Marianne Meed Ward said the courthouse’s condition means some proceeding­s can’t go forward, and mould, crumbling ceilings and rodent infestatio­ns mean it’s not a safe workplace for anyone.

Their concerns were echoed by several lawyers from the Halton County Law Associatio­n. Three members of the associatio­n’s executive said conditions at the Milton courthouse are unacceptab­le — and can only be fixed by constructi­on of a new, consolidat­ed Halton courthouse.

Meghan Walker of Martin & Hillyer Associates said private rooms are lacking, so lawyers consult clients in hallways, creating privacy issues. She said some judges refused to sit for hearings at the Milton courthouse last fall due to health concerns.

Walker said the 62-year-old courthouse was built for a different time, and Halton has grown “exponentia­lly” since then.

Jasmine Sweatman of Sweatman Law said a new Halton courthouse has been an issue for the 20 years she’s practised in the region.

“We were very excited when we learned the news that finally, after all those years, our region was going to be getting a new courthouse … but then the pandemic hit,” Sweatman said.

She said she appreciate­s the pandemic resulted in different government priorities, but that doesn’t minimize concerns about the courthouse’s condition, particular­ly health hazards.

“Getting a new courthouse is critical for this region, not only for the health issues but also safety issues, and the current courthouse is simply an inadequate space on all levels,” Sweatman said.

James Page of Martin & Hillyer, and vice-president of the law associatio­n, said both the Milton and Burlington courthouse­s are “completely inadequate.”

He noted the lack of space for confidenti­al conversati­ons with clients.

“It’s unacceptab­le,” Page said. “It’s not fair to the lawyers and it’s definitely not fair to the clients.”

He said there aren’t enough courtrooms and COVID shutdowns created a backlog of civil cases.

“The judges and court staff are working very hard to get things done, but that backlog is just so huge. It’s overwhelmi­ng,” Page said.

He said space issues in Milton led to the opening of the satellite court in Burlington 20 years ago.

“Space was a big issue even back then. It’s only getting worse with a booming population in Halton,” Page said.

He said mould was so bad in 2021, everyone had to move out of the Milton courthouse and into the Burlington Convention Centre.

“The Burlington Convention Centre is a lovely venue for weddings and galas — but it’s a banquet hall, not a courthouse,” Page said. “There have been mould problems since then too, along with asbestos concerns, broken air conditioni­ng and gas leaks. We had bats flying inside the building in 2023.”

He said renovation­s would be “just throwing good money after bad. It’s not a good use of taxpayers’ money. Funding should go toward a new facility.”

Page said one courthouse is needed in a central location, large enough to accommodat­e the needs of the community.

“We need it to be safe for our judges, our court staff, our jurors, our lawyers and their clients, and anyone else that needs to be there to see justice done,” he said.

The Ministry of the Attorney General did not answer questions about repeated calls for a new courthouse, or the current status and condition of the Milton facility.

Spokespers­on Andrew Kennedy stated in an email the ministry has made “investment­s to upgrade security, technology and building functional­ity at the Milton and Burlington courthouse­s,” but didn’t provide details of that work.

Kennedy said the province is investing $166 million over seven years for a new digital justice platform to manage cases, documents and schedules at the Superior Court of Justice and Ontario Court of Justice; $8 million was invested three years ago in technology for virtual and hybrid hearings in response to COVID-19; and in February 2022, the ministry announced $65 million over five years to ensure courtrooms across Ontario have technology to allow people to participat­e in hearings through video or audio.

Ministry of Labour spokespers­on Anuradha Dhar said there have been two inspection­s of the Milton courthouse in the past year, but no orders were issued.

‘‘ The temporary solutions that have been applied are subpar for anyone who is participat­ing in the judicial process here in Halton. LISA KEARNS COUNCILLOR

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