Equal access to justice threatened in the Acadian Peninsula, according to lawyers

Lawyers say they are worried about the closure of courthouses in the province for 15 years, the Acadian Peninsula being the last affected region.

This week, the provincial government announced that the Caraquet courthouse will close on January 1 and that its workload will be shifted to Bathurst, about 66 kilometers away.

The Tracadie courthouse will become a satellite court, opening only one day per week.

Lawyers who spoke to Radio-Canada say they fear the repercussions this will have on the region’s predominantly French-speaking New Brunswickers, who will be forced to travel further and face additional costs as a result.

“It seems that we have forgotten that access to justice is a fundamental right recognized by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” said lawyer Euclide Lebouthillier, vice-president of the Association des juristes d ‘expression française du New Brunswick.

This right is not worth much if citizens do not have the means to exercise it, says Lebouthillier.

“Inevitably what will happen is people will give up their charter rights,” he said.

The two courthouses that handle criminal cases in provincial courts have been operating at reduced hours since the summer of 2020, the Department of Justice and Public Safety said in a press release this week.

There has also been a decrease in the volume of cases in the region since 2012, the statement said.

“These changes will allow us to make the best use of available resources given the current volume of cases,” Justice and Public Safety Minister Hugh Flemming said in a statement.

“Since the Bathurst courthouse has the capacity to absorb these cases, these changes will allow us to reduce staff workload and better distribute resources in our justice system.

In 2012, the Caraquet court saw 1,260 cases but that number had fallen to 711 in 2020, according to figures provided by the government. The Tracadie courthouse saw 1,061 cases in 2012 against 478 in 2020.

The Tracadie courthouse has been operating at reduced levels since the summer of 2020, according to the province. (Serge Bouchard / Radio-Canada)

“The occupancy target per courtroom is 1,200 charges per year,” the Justice Department said. “This is how the province determines the number of courtrooms needed per location to meet volume. “

The provincial court chief justice has been consulted about the closures, the province said on Wednesday.

Low-income people may be the most affected

Several appearances are often necessary in criminal cases, and the associated costs are not negligible, said Marc Richard, executive director of the Law Society of New Brunswick.

Lawyers charge extra fees for any extra time they have to spend traveling, which is why the Law Society of New Brunswick has always favored an equal distribution of courts in the province.

“Maybe the person isn’t guilty, but they want to get rid of the case, so they decide to plead guilty instead,” Richard said.

Low-income New Brunswickers in particular will be the most affected by the government’s decision to close the courts, the two lawyers said.

They may not own vehicles and will be required to take more time off to get to Bathurst.

The closures could discourage victims of sexual assault and women victims of domestic violence from coming forward, the two also said.

“The woman, who is already a victim, will only be further victimized,” said LeBouthillier.

Those who would normally challenge tickets they deem unjustified could also be deterred, he added.

“He’s just going to pay it because it’s too expensive to go to Bathurst.

The two lawyers stressed that it is not only ordinary citizens who will be disadvantaged but all those involved in the justice system.

Marc Richard, executive director of the Law Society of New Brunswick, says lawyers charge for travel time, which is why the bar is opposed to reducing the number of courthouses in the province. (Radio-Canada)

Eighty to 85 percent of all cases in the province go through provincial courts like Caraquet, LeBouthillier said.

Since the court also deals with many cases involving violations of municipal bylaws, contraventions and violations of laws protecting the environment and wildlife, the police and fishery officers who must testify in these cases will be forced to travel more often.

“When we send our police to Bathurst and then elsewhere, it is still the taxpayers who will have to pay, and the police will not be on the territory to do the work for which they are normally paid,” said LeBouthillier.

Administrative staff at the Caraquet courthouse will be forced to leave the area once the courthouse closes to keep their jobs, he added.

“From a social point of view, for the accused it is a loss. But for society, it entails incredible costs and disorganization.”

Lawyers will also be discouraged from settling in communities like Caraquet, as they will have to travel constantly to process their cases.

Numerous closures since 2007

The government of Prime Minister Blaine Higgs is not the first to close courthouses. The Liberal governments of Brian Gallant and Shawn Graham began closing courthouses in 2007.

The Graham government closed courthouses in Hampton, Richibucto, Shediac, Sackville, Dalhousie, Neguac, Doaktown, Perth, Shippagan and Sussex. The Gallant government closed the courthouses in Grand Falls and St. Stephen.

The Charlotte County Courthouse in Saint Andrews closed in 2016.

LeBouthillier wants to see elected officials in the region fight against the decision to close. It is not just Caraquet and Tracadie who have less access to the justice system, but the entire Acadian Peninsula, he said.

MPs from all three opposition parties criticized the decision.

“Access to justice is an integral part of democracy,” said Isabelle Thériault, Liberal MP for Carquet, in an interview with Radio-Canada.

“The government has just tabled a reform of local governance [under] on the pretext that it wants to develop and give more autonomy, and, a few days later, it announces that it is cutting services in our rural francophone, Acadian and Liberal regions.

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