System managed 6,142 charges in 2006
Crime rate eases, but Nunavut courts need 4th judge
Nunavummiut have complained for years that accused persons spend too much time waiting for their charges to be dealt with – but a recent drop in Nunavut's crime rate won't help, as the the court system's workload continues to grow.
That workload is now so heavy, Nunavut government officials say a fourth judge must be appointed to the Nunavut Court of Justice.
"It's a very critical issue," says Heather Daley, the GN's director of court services.
She said the appointment of a fourth judge would give the court system greater flexibility, especially in the rescheduling of flying court circuits that have been cancelled due to bad weather, and help the court handle growing numbers of criminal, civil and family cases.
The court's senior judge, Beverley Browne, said in the court's 2006 annual report that the appointment of a fourth judge is "essential," as did the justice minister, Paul Okalik, in the legislative assembly this past spring.
Statistics Canada's annual crime rate numbers, released July 18, show Nunavut's overall crime rate actually dropped by 11 per cent in 2006.
This was led by a 25 per cent drop in the rate of property crimes, including a 33 per cent drop in breaking and entering. Nunavut's rate of violent crime dropped too – by nine per cent.
But despite these encouraging trends, the numbers show that Nunavut still leads the nation in crimes of violence, with a rate that's nearly seven times higher than Canada's.
And numbers produced by the Nunavut Court of Justice show that Nunavut's busy court system continues to process thousands of charges a year, and that those numbers continue to rise.
In its 2006 annual report, the Nunavut court officials say they dealt with 6,142 charges last year, up from 5,481 in 2004.
Of those, 1,801 charges originated in Iqaluit – not surprising, given that more than one-fifth of Nunavut's people live there.
The biggest surprise is Kugluktuk. With an estimated population of only 1,302 in 2006, Kugluktuk generated a whopping 678 criminal charges that year.
Cambridge Bay, with an estimated population of 1,477, was third with 420 criminal charges in 2006.
Communities in other regions with larger populations generated much lower numbers of criminal charges. For example, Rankin Inlet, with a population of 2,358, generated only 363 charges. And Arviat, with a population of 2,060, generated only 295 charges.
Criminal charges laid in all communities impose huge costs on the system: in 2004, court parties from the Nunavut Court of Justice travelled a whopping 177,824 kilometres. That's equal to four and half trips around the earth.
At the same time, a rapidly growing number of civil and family law cases also adds to the court's workload. The Nunavut court opened 734 new civil law files in 2006, up from 430 in 2002.
"The growth of civil files is not unexpected," says Heather Daley.
She said that's because Nunavummiut are now more aware of their rights and enjoy better access to more legal aid lawyers.
To help cope with the onslaught of new civil cases, the court created an electronic civil registry in Iqaluit's new justice building.
Each of the three Nunavut judges now travel twice each month on court circuits around Nunavut, during which they routinely handle civil cases in addition to sometimes lengthy criminal dockets.
"I think they've been carrying a heavy workload," Daley said.
Most Nunavut communities receive court parties three to six times a year, with two communities often being covered in a single week. In total, the court was on the road for 71 weeks in 2006. Some of those court sessions were handled by deputy judges borrowed from other jurisdictions.
The court's support staff usually travel only once a month, Daley said, and normally don't mind the stress of frequent travel because they enjoy the chance to get outside Iqaluit and visit other Nunavut communities.
"It's a really, really good team," she said.
One crucial area of the court's work that got backed up last year was jury trials, which usually involved serious, complicated, high-profile cases.
By the end of 2006, the court was left with 38 outstanding jury trials. Of those, 31 had fixed trial dates while seven were still waiting for trial dates to be set.
At the same time, the Nunavut court averages only five jury trials a year, and in 2006 held only two.
But Daley said that in the first six months of 2007, the court took steps to clear that backlog. They've disposed of four jury trials since January of 2007 and scheduled 14 more for this year.
They've also developed new ways of handling preliminary inquiries. Preliminary inquiries, held to decide if there's enough evidence to justify sending an accused person to trial, are mandatory for those who face serious indictable offences.
They're also time-consuming, and may last nearly as long as actual trials. So to speed up that process, Daley said that as of July 1, all out-of-town witnesses to be examined at preliminary inquiries will be heard via videoconference.
Daley also points out that many cases set for jury trial ultimately end in plea agreements between Crown and defense lawyers.
The use of videoconferencing, which is now easier to do within the new justice building in Iqaluit, also helps speed up the processing of civil and family cases, Daley said.
"This court has really undergone a gradual evolution since 1999," Daley said.