First Nations Court in New Westminster – Nine years old this month!

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Nine years ago this month, the Provincial Court of B.C. began a First Nations’ Court in New Westminster. Several factors came together to prompt its creation. Our elected representatives in Parliament had changed the Criminal Code of Canada to require a judge, when sentencing, to apply the principle that:

“all available sanctions other than imprisonment that are reasonable in the circumstances should be considered for all offenders, with particular attention to the circumstances of aboriginal offenders” - section 718.2(e).

Decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada and other courts underlined the importance of that principle. But the proportion of First Nations people in Canadian jails continued to be too high, in spite of the amendment to the Criminal Code and the many, many reports, studies and commissions that found that the justice system must take new approaches in its treatment of First Nations people.

These circumstances, combined with the work and vision of Judge Marion Buller and others both within and outside the Court, led to the launch of First Nations Court in November 2006.

First Nations’ Court is not a trial court. It is for sentencing of criminal matters and mediation of Family court matters. First Nations’ Court can consider guilty pleas to any offence over which a Provincial Court Judge has jurisdiction. The offenders, referred to as “clients”, who have been involved in the Court have identified themselves as belonging to a First Nation. They come to the Court by referral from a Crown prosecutor, defence lawyer or judge.

The goal of the Court is to take a First Nations perspective, being a holistic and restorative approach, to sentencing. The judge receives reports about the clients’ unique systemic background factors and circumstances. There are Elders of the Court who play an important and integral role. They provide guidance to each client on a variety of issues.

Each client works with the judge, lawyers, Elders and support people to develop their healing plan. This healing plan is aimed at helping the client address the underlying issues that bring them to court. The plan may include such options as aboriginal-based treatment for substance abuse, grief and trauma, and participation in spiritual and cultural practices. The judge will incorporate the healing plan in a probation order or conditional sentence order. While there are consequences for disobeying such orders, the approach is supportive. A breach of the healing plan is considered a weakness in the healing plan, not the client.

The First Nations Court is currently in year two of a three year evaluation, led by Dr. S. Johnston of U.B.C. Anecdotally, the court has helped many First Nations people move on to healthy, strengthened lives.

The success of the New Westminster First Nations Court is reflected by the fact that three others have been launched in the province - North Vancouver in 2012 and Kamloops and Duncan in 2013.

For more on the B.C. Provincial Court’s specialized therapeutic courts see Specialized Courts. For information on aboriginal sentencing law see Do Aboriginals get "lighter" sentences?

Watch a video about First Nations Court.