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'Not only because of COVID:' Renfrew County Provincial Court faces 90-month backlog

Warden Debbie Robinson is asking the province to reopen trial courts for virtual proceedings and for additional judicial resources. 
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If you plan on contesting a conviction through the Renfrew County Provincial Offences Court, you better make some long term plans because there is a chance your case will not be heard for more than seven years.

That was the grim news delivered to Renfrew County Council recently when the county’s Finance Committee informed the 17 mayors and reeves who represent the local governments that continual delays caused by COVID-related lockdowns, coupled with the shortage of Justices of the Peace to hear future cases, has resulted in an estimated 90-month delay.

“Justice delayed is justice denied, whether it is the accused or the state,” Admaston/Bromley Mayor Michael Donohue told his fellow council members when he heard of the news. “There is an unreasonableness in the expectation of a 90 month -- which is seven and a half years -- delay.” 

Within its report, the Finance Committee expressed disappointment and frustration with the current and future situation. Committee members noted in their report they are “extremely concerned with the massive backlog of (provincial offences) court matters, due to the COVID-19 shutdown."

However, the backlog is not a unique phenomenon to Renfrew County. It is a systemic problem that several courts located in Eastern Ontario are facing.

The County of Renfrew, and the other 12 counties within the Eastern Ontario catchment, rely heavily on the collection of fines within the Provincial Offences Court to help shore up operational budgets.

These courts deal primarily with the collection of fines related to the Highway Traffic Act, but are also home to more serious cases that fall under the Ontario Court of Justice.

In Renfrew County, satellite offices are located throughout the area in order to better service outlying rural communities, but this is also adding to the projected 90-month backlog

“The Ontario Court of Justice for the County of Renfrew has been short two local Justices of the Peace for more than two years and overall the East Region is short five Justices of the Peace,” the report noted. “Even though our courts are currently remote audio courts, we are only being provided with a Justice of the Peace for the Pembroke court dates not our scheduled court dates for our satellite courts of Renfrew, Killaloe and Deep River due the shortage of Justices of the Peace and the COVID-19 closure of our satellite courts.” 

Mayor Donohue said he was quite concerned with this backlog. 

“[Seven years is] five years beyond what likely our system would deem as an appropriate level,” he said. “That is unacceptable. It is quite distressing it has come to this."

And the mayor added that it's "not only because of COVID."

Mayor Donohue was not alone when it came to expressing his frustration.

Warden Debbie Robinson, who is also Reeve of Laurentian Valley and is currently serving her second term as Renfrew County Warden, said she was looking forward to comments generated from a letter sent from her office to the provincial government.

The letter said there is a 44 per cent reduction in court capacity in 2021. With more serious matters dealt with first it means there is an inability to schedule some matters.  

“The cumulative impact of having all POA trial courtrooms close for one year due to OVID-19 and lack of judicial approval to schedule maters into trial courtrooms has contributed to a historically high backlog of approximately over 2,500 Part 1 and Part III matters,” a summary report stated. “Enforcement activity continues and volumes are nearing pre-COVID levels which include several EMCPA issues and other COVID-19 related legislation which remain unadjudicated. We have estimated that by the end of 2021 we will have an estimated 7,538 matters required to be scheduled and time to trial nearing 90 months.” 

Municipal partners do not have the ability to resolve the issue of judicial shortages, the report noted.  

In her letter to His Worship Herb Kreling, regional Senior Justice of the Peace Warden Robinson noted the technology is in place to support remote audio/video resumption of all pre-COVID courtroom assignments.  

“The one POA courtroom is under construction to retrofit it to meet the health and safety requirements and have the technology installed to support hybrid (in person and virtual) court proceedings when approval is received from the Recovery Secretariat,” she stated. 

Some matters are being dealt with in pre-trial and withdrawal strategies. However there are many charges withdrawn because there is insufficient trial court time available.  

“The public perception is that court will not be able to provide a timely trial and therefore applying for a trial is a tangible means of avoiding penalty,” she wrote. 

In conclusion, Warden Robinson asked for the reopening of trial courts for virtual proceedings and additional judicial resources.  

“We look forward to working together towards the full resumption of POA Courts in the County of Renfrew,” she wrote to Justice Kreling.  

 

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