JPs to play larger role in single court justice system

Nunavut’s Justice Department plans to train and recruit community justices of the peace able to handle a greater number of minor court cases


Nunatsiaq News

IQALUIT — The success of Nunavut’s innovative court system will depend to a large extent on the willingness and ability of justices of the peace to accept more judicial responsibilities in their own communities.

Bill C-57, the legislation establishing Nunavut’s unique, single-level trial court received royal assent last Friday. The Nunavut Court of Justice, which begins operations April 5, is intended to be simpler, less expensive and more expedient than the pre-Nunavut court system.

One measure of the effectiveness of the new court will be the speed with which cases are able to move through the justice system.

In theory, having a single trial court will allow judges flying in to communities for circuit court to hear all cases in the community in a single visit, since they enjoy powers as superior court judges.

The burden will fall on the justices-of-the-peace, however, to lighten the docket before the court arrives, so it’s not bogged down by minor cases. Justices of the peace can do so by hearing guilty pleas and conducting some preliminary inquiries of their own.

“The advantage of that is if the case is dealt with by somebody in the community, it will be dealt with in a shorter time and in a context that’s more familiar to the people coming before the court,” Nunavut’s deputy minister of justice, Nora Sanders, said.

Three competence levels

There are currently 82 justices-of-the-peace working in Nunavut’s 27 communities. Of these, 26 are women and 56 are men. Their duties fall into three levels of experience: signing documents, hearing guilty pleas and conducting trials.

There is no current or proposed legislation to expand the jurisdiction of justices of the peace in Nunavut. The Criminal Code of Canada already sets out their legislative authority, but Nunavut’s justices of the peace haven’t historically used all the powers available to them.

In fact, compared to powers exercised in other parts of Canada, Nunavut’s justices of the peace operate on the lower end of the scale.

In reality, the level of participation within the system that Sanders talks about is far from what most community justices of the peace now feel comfortable exercising.

“I would say most of them are not at the level they could do full trials,” Sanders told Nunatsiaq News.

This will not change immediately after April 1.

More training

When justices of the peace from across Nunavut met with other members of the judiciary at a conference in Iqaluit in November, 1997, they endorsed the single level trial court proposal.

“They supported that, knowing that there’s going to be some increase in training,” Nunavut’s assistant deputy minister for justice, Rebecca Williams, said. “We will work to increase them if they want to. We’re not going to be pushing people.”

Training justices will be Nunavut’s responsibility, but Federal Justice Minister Anne McLellan has committed her department to work with Sanders’ staff.

“They must ultimately take responsibility for the training of these people,” McLellan told a Senate committee reviewing Bill C-57.

“…[B]ecause we see JPs as key to the ability to deliver a high-quality justice system, we will be working with the Government of Nunavut, providing whatever assistance we can, and we will be monitoring, with the Government of Nunavut, very closely the on-the-ground, if you like, delivery of services by JPs.

“We will do whatever we can to ensure that they are working at that level and meeting the expectations of local people in those communities,” McLellan stated.

JP upgrade in the works

Nunavut Justice will hire a co-ordinator, dedicated to recruiting and training justices of the peace to work in the communities in which they live.

Currently, justices of the peace are recommended by their communities and appointed by the territorial government.

“We see that this JP administrator will have a role in talking ahead of time to people who are considering it, perhaps by traveling to different communities and different regions and by talking with local officials about the kind of person needed, so that they have a sense of what that person’s expected to do,” Sanders said.

“We’re hoping that this kind of support will improve recruitment.”

She added there is no target number for recruiting and instead puts an emphasis on determining the level of comfort which currently exists for each individual.

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