Urgent need for Fredericton courthouse replacement, says justice minister

New Brunswick's justice minister says there's an urgency to finding a replacement for Fredericton's aging courthouse, just four months after the government cancelled plans to build a new one.

Andrea Anderson-Mason confirmed that the government is looking at converting the vacant Centennial Building — which had been set for a refurbishment to house government offices — into a modern court building.

"It's being looked at very seriously," she said. "We have engineers looking at it right now."

But she added the Centennial conversion is only one of several options. Others include renovating the existing 1930 building that now houses the courts but sits on a flood plain, or "a new construction" that would be something other than the $76-million project planned by the previous Liberal government.

And though there's no funding in this year's capital budget, Anderson-Mason said she met recently with officials "to emphasize the importance of moving quickly because we know that flood season is upon us, and we have to have an appropriate facility for the judicial district of Fredericton." 

Anderson-Mason's commitment to a speedy solution is a shift from previous comments by Premier Blaine Higgs, who suggested a new Fredericton courthouse might not be needed.

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The Progressive Conservative government's December capital budget cancelled work already underway to replace one wing of the downtown Centennial Building with a new, modern courthouse attached to the remainder of the structure.

The wing was demolished last year, but work had not started on the new building when the PCs cancelled it.

Saint John, Moncton courthouses 'extravagant'

In a year-end interview with CBC News, Higgs said new courthouses that opened in the last decade in Saint John and Moncton struck him as "extravagant."

He has also implied that the push for a new courthouse in Fredericton came in part from the desire to match the new buildings in the other cities.

"It is an old courthouse in Fredericton, and I'm not denying that, but when one city has one, another city gets it, and another city gets it, and so on, and so on, and so on," he said in a speech April 5.

But in that speech he also floated the idea of using the Centennial Building, which he said has about the same space required for a courthouse.

Security shortfalls

Anderson-Mason said as a former practising lawyer, she's aware of the problems with the existing, 89-year-old Queen Street building.

"As soon as we have the right project in place, as soon as we make that determination, we'll be moving forward as quickly as possible to make sure the challenges we're currently facing are taken care of."

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Lawyers and judges have complained for years about security shortfalls in the courthouse. It does not include separate, secure entrances for the public, accused persons and judges so that they don't cross paths in the halls.

The New Brunswick Court of Appeal also lacks facilities for simultaneous translation despite its bilingual obligations.

Won't revive Liberal plan

Anderson-Mason said if the province decides to build a new courthouse, it would not revive the cancelled Liberal plan because it involved new government offices in the Centennial section.

"The issue that I have with it is it wasn't focused on a new courthouse," she said. "It was also the building of more government offices. My focus is meeting the needs of the judicial district of Fredericton. I have not yet seen a business case for the housing of government offices."

The minister also said she will consider including a space in the new building separate from conventional courtrooms "that is respectful of restorative justice and traditional practices for our Aboriginal community."

"That's not something I saw in the last proposed courthouse, and I think it's something we should consider in this courthouse."