Judge refuses to transfer murder case, calls for 2nd courtroom in Harbour Grace

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Full slate of murder trials at N.L. Supreme Court in 2018

A judge's frustration over court facilities and court administration became crystal clear during a decision at provincial court in Harbour Grace this week, with Bruce Short saying he cannot see a good reason why a first-degree murder trial ought to moved to St. John's.

Short's frustrations have caught the attention of Justice Minister Andrew Parsons, who told CBC News that it's troubling if a judge has ideas to improve the efficiency of the courts and is not being heard. 

The Crown had asked Short to allow a preliminary hearing in a high-profile case to be moved from Harbour Grace to St. John's so it could be heard sooner.

The hearing is for Allan Potter, 53, and Daniel Leonard, who are charged with the first-degree murder of Dale Porter, 39, in North River in June 2014.

Short made it clear that, in his mind, if the court system was being run more efficiently the request wouldn't be necessary, and that changes can be made so the preliminary inquiry could be heard much sooner in Harbour Grace than the scheduled dates in November.

Short said there's no reason why additional space in the Harbour Grace courthouse couldn't be converted to a second courtroom.

"What would you expect us to be able to do if we had courtroom No. 2 here? Well, we could give you a two week preliminary next week. Simple as that," he told the Crown.

The government has a 10-year lease on the building.

"I'm advised by the owner of this building," said Short, "that assuming that materials were on site, courtroom No. 2 could be build in two weeks."

Short said the Justice Department wouldn't have to hire another judge, because there are already enough in the system to help out in Harbour Grace.

"If the judge in Clarenville routinely helps out in St. John's, then Clarenville doesn't need to have a judge sitting full-time," said Short.

Not a money issue

"That judge's salary is already being paid," he said. "In other words, there would be no additional costs to the system with respect to having a judge from Clarenville routinely help out this court."

Several times during his decision, Short said he has never been consulted or asked for his advice on how the running of court in Harbour Grace could be done more effectively.

He said that because of the way things are now, the court schedule is over-booked and matters have to set over, wasting money.

"In my view, the situation is, indeed, ridiculous," said Short.

He also said there are times when his courtroom can be a dangerous place because the courthouse doesn't have cells to hold prisoners.

"Not so long ago we actually had five people sitting in that prisoner's box, two of whom were particularly averse to one of the other," said Short.

"There were two distinct groups of people in the gallery of the court and it was a situation that was ripe for disaster."

He took the opportunity to mention other shortcomings at the Harbour Grace courthouse.

"Every single time a matter is called and an accused isn't in the courtroom, one of the sheriffs has to enter the court, go out in the hallway and call out their name. Why? Because we don't have an intercom system."

'It doesn't sound like they are getting discussed'

In no uncertain terms, Short made it clear he would like Justice Minister Andrew Parsons and the court administration to listen to his ideas on how to improve the operation of his court and others in the province.

"The resources within this system are more than adequate, and I completely agree with the minister of justice, that it is not necessary to appoint other judges," said Short.

In an interview with CBC News Friday, Parsons indicated he is paying attention to Short's comments. 

"I think that's a concern, if that's how this judge or any judge feels," he said.

"I want to hear these things. I need to hear these things." 

Parsons says it's up to the chief judge and court administration to decide where judges are placed, and how resources are allocated. 

"Those aren't decisions that, constitutionally, I can make. These are decisions that have to be discussed within, and it doesn't sound like they are getting discussed," said Parsons. 

"What is absolutely necessary is this," said Short. "The resources, both judicial and otherwise, need to be rationalized for the province as a whole. Certain areas of the province, seem to have, perhaps, more than their fair share of resources. That needs to stop."

My door is open, justice minister says

Short denied the application to move the preliminary inquiry, saying, "I would be condoning the status quo if I were to grant this application. That would be wrong on quite a number of levels."

The matter is set to be back in Harbour Grace on March 23.

"At which time, hopefully, we will be in a position to make a reasonable suggestion as to how we can move this matter forward and accommodate it in this court and in a reasonable timeframe," Short said.

In the meantime, Parsons said he encourages finding solutions. 

"I'm always willing to talk," he said.

"I'm willing to consider absolutely anything that will benefit our justice system. I will never turn down an idea. But we've got to these conversations and my door is open."