Circuit Courts: serving remote communities by plane and boat

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Provincial Court judges preside in courts in more than 80 locations around British Columbia. Where the number of people in an area doesn’t warrant a full time court judges visit and hold court in the community at regular intervals. Sometimes the judge and court team will visit several communities in a geographic area. These community sittings of the Court are referred to as circuit courts.

For example, a Provincial Court Judge visits Bella Bella on Campbell Island in the rain forest on B.C.’s Central Coast with a full court team five times a year. In Bella Bella, home of the Heiltsuk First Nation, court is held in a large room above Brown’s Restaurant and Store. The judge uses a storage room for an office. Judge, Crown, defence and family lawyers, a court clerk, a Native Courtworker, a probation officer, and a sheriff make a ninety minute plane flight from Vancouver to Bella Bella on Monday morning, carrying court files and equipment. They spend the rest of the week dealing with Provincial Court work including family and civil settlement conferences and trials, and criminal trials and sentencings.

Three times this year the court team will travel another ninety minutes north by boat from Bella Bella to Klemtu on Swindle Island, home of the Kitasoo and Xai’xais First Nations. There court is held in the House of the Wolves hall and the judge uses a small kitchen as an office. In Klemtu the Court deals mostly with criminal cases, but hears some family law matters as well.

Judges’ assignments to a circuit court last several years so they can become familiar with the communities they visit and their problems, and can provide consistent decision making. Remote communities like these face particular challenges, including limited access to support services. Judges apply restorative justice principles and craft court orders that are sensitive to local circumstances. One of the strengths of the community in Bella Bella is the Heiltsuk’s successful Restorative Justice Program.

Judge James Wingham, who has conducted court in Bella Bella and Klemtu for the last five years, said “This has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my judicial career. The opportunity to serve the people of the Central Coast, their warmth and the beauty of their surroundings, combined with the camaraderie of the court team, make each circuit court trip unforgettable.”