Opened in 1914 and constructed in the imposing Classical Revival style, the Vernon Law Courts is one of BC’s older courthouses. Since 2019, it has been undergoing necessary renovation including repairing flood damage, remediating the structural foundation, upgrading the roof and electrical system, and rebuilding cells and courtrooms. During that time Provincial Court trials were held in a converted storeroom while construction went on around it.
A building feeling its age
After 105 years, the Vernon courthouse was feeling its age. Problems began in April 2019 with an HVAC failure that caused substantial water damage to courtrooms, interview rooms, and the sheriffs’ office. When repairs began, problems were discovered in the building’s foundation - vastly increasing the work needed to make the building safe.
Then, in June 2020 nature weighed in. The roof failed in a storm. Leaks damaged areas on the third floor. After more structural problems were identified, the provincial government (it’s responsible for courthouse construction, maintenance, and operation) decided the time had come to renovate the building rather than just patch it up. Gas fired heating would be changed to electric with the goal of achieving zero emissions and making the Vernon courthouse an example of how a historic building could achieve ‘green’ status.
How was the Court able to continue operating in a construction site in a damaged building for four years? By May 2019 a storeroom had been converted to a makeshift courtroom. The room was large for a storeroom and renovators did a good job converting it, but seating was limited and a pillar blocked some participants’ view. The witness box was a portable table and chair squeezed in at one end of the counsel table. The conditions prompted a child visiting the court to ask if they were really in a courtroom. Fortunately, a second temporary courtroom was added in January 2020.
The renovations took far longer than originally planned. The judicial system continued to operate because of the dedication of the court staff and judicial officers and cooperation of court users. Sheriffs had to move out of their offices and manage people in custody without a suitable cell block. People attending court had to wait in the hallways, creating more challenges for the sheriffs responsible for everyone’s safety. Registry staff moved buckets around to catch water seeping through the ceiling and court clerks had to adapt to the temporary court rooms.
Celebrating the “newest and most advanced courtroom in British Columbia”
On February 6, 2023 the Provincial Court opened its new state-of-the-art courtroom in Vernon. Court staff, sheriffs, lawyers, and judges filled the courtroom for a celebratory special sitting during the noon hour, while judges who couldn’t attend in person joined remotely.
Left to right: Judges Hewson, Brecknell (retired), Leven, Guild, and Regional Administrative Judge Koturbash at the BC Provincial Court’s special sitting in Vernon on February 6, 2023
Regional Administrative Judge Gregory Koturbash began by acknowledging the courthouse’s location on the ancestral territory of the Syilx Okanagan People and the strong relationship built between the Court and the Indigenous community as they work together toward reconciliation, mutual understanding, and building trust.
He paid tribute to the people who had worked in Vernon’s courthouse over the years – some of whom were in attendance. Retired judge Ted Brecknell who first entered the Vernon courthouse as a young police officer 65 years ago was there in person. Recently retired judge Marguerite Shaw, who represented the Court during the renovation process as Regional Administrative Judge for the Interior Region, attended by video from Hawaii.
Judge Koturbash reflected on what the courtroom walls had seen in the past and would continue to see in the future – things like:
- the long hours and hard work that goes into every court case and the dedication required to uphold the rule of law
- moments of intense drama as lawyers and judges engaged in heated debates and the eerie stillness before the rendering of a verdict
- desperate moments of fear of the unknown, fear of punishment, or families being separated
- moments of triumph and moments of defeat, tears of joy and tears of grief
- the tireless efforts of judges, judicial justices, justices of the peace, lawyers, native court workers, court staff, and sheriffs working to ensure everyone is treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their station in life or the outcome of their case
- hope, compassion, and the unrelenting pursuit of justice.
After recognizing the benefits of the new courtroom’s technological advancements, he concluded,
“However, it is essential to note that behind every case and every decision that will happen in this room are real people. These walls will continue to witness the justice system’s profound impact on individuals and communities. The human toll of every verdict and every ruling will continue to be felt, and this room will remain a testament to the power and responsibility of the legal system.”
Speaking for the judges who sit regularly in Vernon, Judge Jeremy Guild added remarks to this effect:
“… we now have a main court room for the Provincial Court’s business that has sufficient space for people, with room for lawyers to speak in private with their clients. The sheriffs can better deal with security and everyone’s safety. We have integrated computers and telecommunications technology that will serve the Court’s needs into the future and will help people access justice effectively.
There is more work to be done in this venerable building, but this courtroom is a promising start to ensure that Vernon and the surrounding communities can be proud of this iconic building and its role in the justice system of British Columbia. I believe I speak for all the judges who will sit here when I say that we are fortunate to sit in the newest and most advanced courtroom in British Columbia.”
Judge Koturbash concluded, “Thank you all for attending. I declare this courtroom open. Now let us get down to business.”