Toronto Star

Oct. 12, 01:00 EDT

Justices of the peace under fire

Richard Brennan
QUEEN'S PARK BUREAU
Toronto Star

Too many justices of the peace in Ontario are doing the bare minimum on the job, causing problems for police and the courts, according to an internal government document.

In the document, obtained by The Star, police forces complain that some justices of the peace refuse to work evenings or weekends, or go into jails or police stations to conduct bail hearings.

That leaves people cooling their heels in jail far longer than they should, the report says.

While the report is 2 years old, government officials say the problems have only worsened.

"When it comes five o'clock ... they close the bail court down and go home. They don't care," said one government source.

In the report, Inspector Brian Harder of Belleville police said "justices of the peaces work only 8 to 4 ... and are not available after hours for any reason."

And Toronto Police Services counsel Jerry Wiley and Superintendent John Dennis, of the force's court services, described how justices of the peace working weekend bail court would refuse to accept new prisoners after 11 a.m.

"There has been cases where prisoners have been held without remand from late Saturday morning to until Monday morning," which they said raised Charter of Rights concerns.

The lack of a work ethic among justices is a common complaint that threads itself throughout the 18-page document. One reason cited is that some justices have been doing less since they went on salary in 1995. Before that, they received fees for work done.

Another common complaint expressed in the report is justices' lack of knowledge of the intricacies of the justice system.

There are 297 active justices of the peace, making between $57,232 and $78,694 a year plus benefits. According to the attorney-general's ministry, "there are no particular prerequisite qualifications for an appointment as a justice of the peace."

Public Security Minister Bob Runciman said he shares many of the concerns aired by police and met Thursday with Attorney-General David Young and Associate Chief Justice Donald Ebbs, who is responsible for overseeing justices of the peace. Ebbs could not be reached for comment.

"I provided them with a list with examples of some of the problems that have been occurring over the past couple of years, along with an analysis of what goes on in other provinces as well," Runciman said.

The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police is also reported to have concerns about justices that it will be raising soon with the government.

Toronto lawyer Paul Schabas, who represents the Association of Justices of Peace of Ontario, dismissed the concerns raised in the report.

"There was a meeting to deal with this issue and most of the complaints that were listed arose from misunderstandings and were found to be without foundation or not of significance. ... It is simply not the case to say that justices of the peace are not available to the police," Schabas said.

Brendan Crawley, a spokesperson for the attorney-general's ministry, said crown attorneys and court staff work constantly with judges and justices of the peace to improve the situation in bail courts.

But sources in the justice system say very little has changed. They say too many justices are still unwilling to work outside normal hours and there are still not enough of them.

For a few years now, justices of the peace have refused to go to jails and police stations to do bail hearings, which critics say only exacerbates the overcrowding in the jails.

"They refuse to go the jails anymore. ... They will not do it and when they are in the office we are having a problem with a shortage of them," said a court official in southwestern Ontario, who asked not to be named.

"The police used to be able to lay charges with them every day and now they can't even do that because half the time we don't have one ... when I know there are three or four of them sitting around in London doing nothing," the court official said.

Crawley said bail hearings are held in courthouses, not jails, "because of concerns about security, the appropriateness of the setting, and the lack of support staff and the lack of public access to those facilities."

New Democrat MPP Peter Kormos (Niagara Centre) said while there are many good justices who put in an honest day's work, "there are many ... appointed purely as a result of political patronage, who have but a passing sense of duty or obligation to their role."

Copyright © 1996-2002. Toronto Star Newspapers Limited.