The sad state of the courthouse in one of the country’s fastest growing cities is causing some cases to be thrown out.
The elevator often doesn’t work, pieces of the ceiling have fallen down, there has been flooding in at least one courtroom, and the premises are so cramped that prisoners are sometimes transported through the same areas as judges.
Welcome to the Milton courthouse. Or as veteran criminal defence lawyer Paul Stunt calls it, an “unmitigated disaster.”
Located in what has been described as the fastest-growing city in Canada, the decades-old building, with its shortage of courtrooms and judges, is vastly ill-equipped to deal with the caseload of Halton Region, lawyers say. A second, even smaller, courthouse in Burlington has also proven to be problematic.
As a result of the lack of resources, criminal cases that are taking too long to get to trial are being thrown out due to delay.
The government has said a new Halton courthouse is at the top of its priority projects list and issued a request for proposals last month to find a design expert.
But lawyers aren’t holding their breath. They’re quick to point out that other municipalities including Kitchener, Brampton and Oshawa have either received new, state-of-the-art courthouses in the last 15 years or are getting expansions while Milton has been left virtually untouched for decades.
“I look forward to being proven wrong on this but we have heard it before. At points in the last 10 years, Halton has been considered one of the priorities for court facilities only to see other regions ‘get the goods,’” said lawyer Brendan Neil, the Halton director of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association.
“Don’t get me wrong. Halton is not the only region in need but it is the fastest growing region with an antiquated building which has been termed as an embarrassment and a black eye on a justice system that deserves better.”
The impact in the region is being especially felt at the provincial court level, with its tiny bench of seven judges, two of whom deal exclusively with family law matters. When lawyer Victoria Starr was appointed in 2014, she became Halton’s newest judge in 10 years.
As judges have stated repeatedly in their rulings, there simply aren’t enough jurists and courtrooms to hear all cases without violating an accused’s right to be tried within a reasonable time.
Last year alone, at least three impaired driving cases — which make up the bulk of the provincial court docket in Ontario — and two dangerous driving charges were thrown out due to unreasonable delay.
A higher court recently upheld the decision to put a halt to one of the impaired cases, in which a man waited nearly a year for his case to get to trial.
“There is also the legitimate concern that there are no courtrooms or facilities to accommodate additional judges should they be appointed or transferred to the region to assist,” with the trial work, wrote Superior Court Justice Fletcher Dawson earlier this month in his appeal ruling.
“This represents a form of ‘Catch-22’ for deployment of judicial resources.”
Justice Stephen Brown, the local administrative provincial court judge for the region, has perhaps been the most vocal on the bench in calling out the lack of government attention in Halton. (He declined an interview request from the Star.)
“Explosive growth in Halton has been present for many years and is projected to continue for many more. It is not a temporary and ‘unusual strain’ on the judicial resources of this region, but a persistent and ever increasing one,” he wrote in his decision last year, which was upheld by Dawson.
“The government has failed to allocate sufficient resources in Halton for a lengthy period of time. This cannot be an oversight, but only a conscious decision.”
Virtually every judicial and local political player in the region feels their pleas to the government have fallen on deaf ears. Milton’s long-time mayor, Gord Krantz, believes at least part of the reason for the foot-dragging is political.
“It all depends on who is the most vocal, I would suspect, around the cabinet table, or the backbenchers. We had an opposition member for a while, so that worked against us, I would say,” he said.
Progressive Conservative Ted Chudleigh held the riding that includes the Milton courthouse for nearly 20 years, the last 10 of which was during Liberal rule. Since 2014, the area has been represented by Liberal MPPs.
Chudleigh agreed in an interview with the Star that politics can often play a role in the construction of new government projects. He said the legal community had expressed concerns to him in the late 1990s, while his party was in power, about the need for an expansion to the Milton courthouse.
He said he was told that it was on a government priority projects list, but that many projects were halted when the Liberals were elected in 2003.
“It’s political and it’s not necessarily just the Liberals. All parties do it. You stop all construction, and then restart it and take credit for it,” he said.
An Attorney General spokeswoman said the ministry recognizes the need to address the infrastructure issues in Halton and has invested $10.3 million to renovate and improve the Milton courthouse.
“We will continue to work with our justice sector partners to find ways to address these challenges and ensure that the Milton courthouse is able to function efficiently and effectively,” said spokeswoman Clare Graham.
Built in 1962, when the population of Milton was about 6,000 people, and expanded in the late ’70s, the courthouse has six provincial courtrooms. Only two of them actually hear trials and one is frequently used for family matters, said Neil with the Criminal Lawyers’ Association.
The Superior Court, which hears more serious cases and deals with civil matters, has five courtrooms.
Today, Milton’s population is nearing 100,000, part of the 500,000 people who reside in Halton Region — four times the size of the region in 1962.
“I have great concern for the overall security of that building and I think the public, my officers and special constables and in-custody accused persons would be better served and safer in a facility which is probably already 15 to 20 years overdue. We need a brand new, state-of-the-art courthouse as soon as possible,” Halton Regional Police Chief Stephen Tanner told the Star in an interview.
He said when the elevator breaks down and officers have to bring prisoners from the holding cells to the courtrooms, they sometimes have to take them up public stairwells, or through hallways where judges or potential jurors might be found.
“All those things shouldn’t happen in a modern courthouse facility,” he said.
There’s also a “satellite” courthouse in Burlington, built in the early 1990s, which has three provincial court trial courtrooms and a small claims courtroom. But all individuals in Halton region who have been charged with a crime must first appear in Milton.
Lawyers point out that cases can be moved on a whim from Milton to Burlington, yet public transportation between the two is practically non-existent, and not every accused person has access to a car to make the half-hour drive.
“I understand they’ve sent witnesses down in taxis,” said Stunt, the lawyer who has been lobbying the government for years for a new Halton region courthouse.
“There’s no space for the defence lawyers to meet with their clients in that courthouse. It doesn’t exist. You go to Tim Horton’s or the hallway. When that building was first opened, to get to the cells, you had to go through the men’s washroom. They’ve corrected that now.”
Even if plans for a new courthouse were approved this week, it would take years for the project to get off the ground, critics say. Concern is growing that even more serious cases will be tossed in the meantime.