MONTREAL — A shortage of available judges has resulted in the cancellation of an entire week of provincial court hearings in Quebec's northern region of Nunavik.
The Justice Department said about 250 cases were postponed this week in Kuujjuaq, because no judges were available to sit on the court that travels between the region's Indigenous communities.
Sarah Plamondon, who represents northern Quebec in the provincial association of defence lawyers, said Tuesday the postponements are a sign of the problems plaguing Nunavik's justice system.
"It's not only a shortage of judges but also legal aid lawyers, clerks," Plamondon said in an interview.
"There's no entire week of court that is cancelled in Montreal … (cases) are postponed to the next week. Here, we can't do that …. We can't reschedule in four months, or six or nine. It can be 12 months later."
Quebec court has about 319 judges, with another 61 retired judges allowed to fill in, but none of them are permanently based in Nunavik.
"It's time to review the justice budget ... and to nominate more judges," Plamondon said, adding that the consequences are dire for both the accused facing delays and victims.
"A victim who is told the case will be resolved at a certain time and gets ready for it, but ends up being told … to come back almost a year from now … it's discouraging," she said.
"Someone who's sentenced in northern Quebec has to go to Montreal (to serve their sentence). There's a high price to pay for that, a lot of preparation. The dates I give my clients are important and not meant to be rescheduled."
A spokesperson for Quebec court did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
In February, the association representing the province's Crown prosecutors sounded the alarm about the justice system in northern Quebec, decrying a lack of resources, staff and available court dates.
"The cancellations of hearings is another difficulty that adds to and complicates the issue that the North is already struggling with," Andy Drouin, vice-president of the prosecutors association, said in a statement Tuesday.
"The biggest losers from the lack of resources are the victims, because they don't benefit from the services they are entitled to."
Drouin said the association is waiting for a promised provincial report about the justice system in Nunavik and is ready to work to improve the situation.
The Justice Department was expected to publish a report at the end of March by lawyer Jean-Claude Latraverse looking at ways to reduce delays and improve access to justice in northern Quebec. Department spokesperson Maxime Rioux said in a statement Tuesday the report is in translation and editing.
Meanwhile, Plamondon said a recent decision by Quebec court to allow judges one day of deliberation for each day sitting in court starting this fall — rather than one day of deliberation for every two days of sitting in court — will further strain Nunavik's itinerant court.
"The decision has enormous consequences. We already reduced by half weekly court hearings on next year's calendar," Plamondon said.
She said she fears some delayed cases will have to wait over a year for a new court date. That could push them past the limit set in the Supreme Court's Jordan ruling and result in charges being dropped. The 2016 high court decision said provincial court trials should finish within 18 months of the person being charged.
"A lot of cases will be dropped without being processed," Plamondon said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on July 19, 2022.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Virginie Ann, The Canadian Press