Circuit court – through the eyes of a law student

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Travelling by float plane, boat or four-wheel drive vehicles, Provincial Court judges and sheriffs, court staff, and lawyers normally travel regularly to hold court in BC’s more remote communities. Called “circuit courts” because the court party sometimes travels a circuit, holding court in several communities during a week, they may use community halls, recreation centres and other facilities as a courtroom.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Provincial Court has worked with government and local communities to provide access to the Court while keeping people safe. Initially, circuit court matters were dealt with by telephone or audio-conference. Government has retained a consultant to assess many of our circuit court locations and recommend modifications to ensure physical distancing and other protective measures can be maintained. As those recommendations are implemented around the province, in-person proceedings are resuming where possible in circuit courts. Nevertheless, as in other court locations, litigants and lawyers are encouraged to use alternatives to in-person appearances unless something substantive is happening in their case.

Twice a year, law students from the University of British Columbia’s Allard School of Law spend a term working as interns in the Provincial Court. With funding from the Law Foundation of BC, each student has accompanied a court party on a circuit. In this eNews intern Simone Penney describes her circuit court experience in Haida Gwaii last fall.

“As a Provincial Court judicial intern, I travelled from Vancouver to Haida Gwaii with two of my colleagues for a special sitting held in Massett* during the last week of October. We had the pleasure of spending our week with Judge Dwight Stewart from Prince Rupert, who ensured we had an intellectually stimulating court experience and a robust introduction to the island and community.

Attending circuit court illuminated the unique nature of access to justice challenges facing remote communities. In particular, the circuit court in Haida Gwaii showed the challenges of facilitating the court process in an island community.

For complainants who lived elsewhere and were required to travel to appear as a witness, the floatplane journey was an additional toll upon the already challenging experience of testifying. Weather delays and limited duty counsel demanded a court process that was quick to adapt to the changing conditions. Given the length of time between court circuits in Haida Gwaii and the relative rarity of additional special sittings, efficiency was of the upmost importance. Counsel and court staff worked together to ensure the proceedings were conducted in a timely matter and were flexible in accommodating matters that were not scheduled for the special sitting.

Water next to the ocean</p>
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An ever-present consideration was the distance between the community and the closest correctional and remand facility in Prince George. After the closure of the Terrace Community Correctional Centre, the closest correctional facility is over 900 kilometres away. Such isolation bears an acute impact on offenders and those on remand from remote communities, who face a significant degree of social isolation while incarcerated. This issue highlighted the importance of reasonable bail and the imposition of conditional sentencing orders when possible to maintain connections to community and social livelihoods.

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<p>Description automatically generatedTravelling to Haida Gwaii offered important insights into how the court process may best serve First Nations communities with a view to reconciliation. During our trip, we were connected with Elizabeth Moore, the Aboriginal Justice Worker for the community of Massett. Ms. Moore toured us around the Old Massett Reserve and told us about the history of the community and her own personal journey to return to live in Haida Gwaii. She also described some of the broader challenges facing the community, such as 80% unemployment, and the changing relationship between the community and the local RCMP detachment. Finally, she took us to two carving sheds on the island and introduced us to the carvers, who were happy to demonstrate their amazing craftsmanship.

   Enjoying "Sharing and Caring", a weekly lunch, with elders in Old Massett

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<p>Description automatically generatedSpending a week with a Provincial Court judge and members of the community in this setting was an excellent learning opportunity that I will carry forward throughout my career. As an aspiring lawyer, the opportunity to confer directly with judges and learn their insights about litigation and legal practice is part of what makes the judicial internship such an amazing experience. Doing so in the context of circuit court allowed for thoughtful discussions both and in out of judges’ chambers. In particular, Judge Stewart highlighted the immense potential presented by a rural legal practice and the importance of creating a practice that meets your lifestyle and not vice versa.

Judge Stewart and interns walking the beach

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<p>Description automatically generatedThese photos depict my personal highlights from the trip and the incredible scenic beauty of Haida Gwaii. The photo of myself jumping was taken by Christina Batstone, a fellow judicial intern with a passion for photography.

The opportunity to attend circuit court reinforces the exemplary experience offered by the Judicial Externship Program. I moved to British Columbia just over six years ago and have not had the opportunity to explore the northern coastal region of BC. Thanks to the Law Foundation’s generosity, my venture on circuit court was nothing short of a trip of a lifetime.”

Photo credit: Christina Batstone

For information on circuit court proceedings during COVID-19, see CRIM 13 Practice Direction: Initial Appearance Court During COVID-19.

* In this article, Ms. Penney has used the spelling “Massett” at the request of Ms. Moore.