Northern Quebec circuit court should be adapted to local conditions: report

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MONTREAL — The justice system in Quebec's northern Nunavik region should be better adapted to local culture and have a more permanent presence in the area, according to a new report.

Jean-Claude Latraverse, who practiced law in the region for 20 years, wrote in his report that technology also needs to be used to improve access to justice in the region's 14 communities, none of which are accessible by road.

"It is of primary importance to recognize that the system, as it currently exists, has failed in many respects," he wrote in the report released Friday. "Reoffending rates have not declined, the Inuit have not been included and bridges with traditional dispute resolution methods have not been used."

Latraverse, who worked as both a public defender and a prosecutor, was commissioned by the provincial government and the Makivik Corporation, the legal representative of Inuit in Quebec, to study the region's itinerant court.

There is no permanent court in Nunavik, which comprises around a third of Quebec's territory. The provincial court travels to nine of the region's communities, while the Superior Court hears cases in three.

Those court proceedings are often beset by delays. In July, hundreds of cases were postponed when a week of hearings in Kuujjuaq was cancelled because no judge was available.

"The statistics show that delays are, more or less, the same as in the South, but the inconvenience and impacts experienced are not comparable. When a case is postponed five times, it may involve a delay of over two years in some communities," Latraverse wrote.

Latraverse said changes need to be made to the way court is scheduled in the region and he'd like to see both the prosecution service and legal aid reopen permanent local offices. More use of videoconferencing technology could also help, he wrote.

“Often, in Nunavik, the court does not visit communities for months at a time, and sometimes up to a year and a half, for all kinds of reasons. It is easy to imagine the strain this places on offenders, who often have to comply with conditions in a situation beyond their control.”

Latraverse is also calling for efforts to divert offenders from the criminal justice system.

In 2019-2020, more than 10 per cent of Nunavik residents were charged with an offence, in the rest of Quebec, he wrote, the figure stood at just over half of one per cent.

One of the changes Latraverse would like to see involves more use of suspended sentences in cases of impaired driving.

He wrote that people convicted of driving under the influence are often sent to serve short jail sentences in southern Quebec. Those sentences are too brief for offenders to receive treatment and options that are available in other parts of the province, such as serving short sentences on weekends, aren't available in the region.

Latraverse said he'd also like to see community justice committees play a more active role in the local system.

Specific training is also needed for lawyers working on youth protection cases and a local youth protection protection program should be supported, he wrote, adding that one in five children in the region are under the responsibility of youth protection authorities.

"It is, in fact, essential for the justice system to be embodied in the Nunavimmiut themselves," he wrote. "For this to be achieved, the community must be involved and, above all, its involvement must be valued. Inclusion will only be successful if the interests and concerns of the Inuit are placed at the heart of all actions."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 7, 2022.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press