According to Mark Pike, the Chief Judge of the Provincial Court, the circuit court that was held in Harbour Breton and Conne River will close as of January 1, 2013.
Residents in the Coast of Bays and Conne River, who previously took advantage of their nearest court service, will now have to travel to Head of Bay d’Espoir to avail of the court service.
Mayor Eric Skinner of Harbour Breton said that the decision to close the Harbour Breton court circuit was made without any consultation with his council.
Skinner said, “One of the most frustrating things about this is that my council was not even notified that this decision was even being considered or that it was a done deal until I had a call from a local radio station.
“Municipalities are a level of government and, in my opinion, should be consulted in decisions like this. In this way we could at least have made a case for keeping the service in Harbour Breton and the decision may have been different.
“People, victims and witnesses, in our area who need to use the courts system will now have to travel to Head of Bay d’Espoir over that high country which can be dangerous in the winter.
“It’s a great inconvenience for people who may have to take time off work to travel to attend court cases. It will also have some economic impact on our community as people who came here for court spent some money in our local restaurants and gas bars.”
Chief Judge Pike said that the decision process to close some provincial circuit courts had been underway for about a year.
He said, “At the end of that process I had to make a decision as to how we could best deploy the 23 judges and the court staff we have in the different centers to make sure we give people the best possible service.
“Last year we heard 30,000 cases in the entire province. Twenty-seven of those were held in Harbour Breton, another 27 were heard in Conne River while 30 took place in Head of By d’Espoir.
“Previously a judge travelled to Harbour Breton, Conne River and Bay d’Espoir, from Grand Falls-Windsor, six times a year and spent one day (sometimes less than two hours) in each community.
“Under this new program a judge will travel to Bay d’Espoir four times a year for a two day period during each visit.
“Yes, I realize it’s an economic and time inconvenience for some people, but we have to look at deploying our judges in other areas where there are more cases.
“In Grand Falls-Windsor for example we heard 1,500 cases last year. So, again, I want to deploy the judges in the best possible way I can.”
Pike also said that technology is playing a role in how people can have certain court cases heard today.
He noted that people can file some small claim cases online via a computer system while others can avail of a telephone call-in program to have case settled.
He said that this technology is being used in rural Newfoundland as well as in the larger centers such as St. John’s and Corner Brook.
Skinner said that a courts service has been available in Harbour Breton for decades and this cutback is an example of the erosion Harbour Breton has seen in government services in the past several years.
“It’s brutal for government to remove this service from us after it’s been here so long. It’s much easier for the people of the Fortune Bay North area and the Hermitage-Sandyville area to travel to Harbour Breton than it will be to go to Bay d’Espoir for court cases.
Overall, removing circuit courts in communities will mean huge barriers in accessing court services.”
Pike said, “I fully understand Mayor Skinner’s concerns, but every community is important. In the end it’s simply easier and less costly for us to send a judge to Bay ‘Espoir from Grand Falls-Windsor than it is to send him and the staff to Harbour Breton.”
Circuit courts hear cases involving a huge number of matters that include criminal law, highway traffic, hunting and fishing offences and many others.