Legal Aid, Courtworker, and Public Legal Education and Information Needs in the Northwest Territories

4. Justice of the Peace (JP) Court

4. Justice of the Peace (JP) Court

4.1 Statistical Data

Tables 10–13 provide background data on plea, disposition and sentences in JP court. This is a necessary context for understanding the role of Courtworkers who, as will be discussed in Section 5.2, are the primary resource in the JP courts which they attend.

Table 10 shows that there is a considerable variation in the rate of guilty pleas. In the Yellowknife JP court registry the rate has varied from 67 percent to 44 percent, while, in the Inuvik and Hay River registry areas, the rate has been between 88 percent and 100 percent. Ironically, the overall conviction rate (not shown in the table) is similar in all three registries, i.e., the lower guilty plea rate in Yellowknife does not result in a significantly higher proportion of acquittals. This would suggest that Courtworkers may be able to play a stronger role in helping clients determine the reason for plea, the type of evidence required, and likely outcomes. Clearly this would not be to encourage more guilty pleas, but to provide more information to clients about the implications and reasonability of a particular plea.

Table 10: Plea in JP Courts, by Court Registry

Table 11 shows that the main offence type category with a high not guilty plea rate is territorial offences (the table does not include territorial offences based on summary offence ticket informations). Nonetheless, Table 12 shows that these offences have one of the highest conviction rates (83 percent) among the categories listed. Again, this would suggest that there is a role for Courtworkers to help clients sort out the basis for a plea. It is also noteworthy that 32 percent of charges disposed of in JP court (i.e., 1198 out of 3695 charges) in the two-and-a-half-year period were for offences against the person. However, a further breakdown of this category to assess seriousness of the offences was not possible.

Table 13 shows the sentences ordered by JP courts. Several derived statistics from this table can be seen as indicators of how serious the impacts might be on individual lives:

  • Approximately 11 percent of dispositions involve jail sentences, the majority of which are between two days and four months.
  • Approximately 8 percent of dispositions involve probation sentences, the vast majority of which are four months or more.
  • Approximately 30 percent of dispositions involve a fine (not including municipal fines). There are no data on the size of fines.

Table 13: Sentences Ordered by JP Courts

Although the data in these four tables give a preliminary sense of seriousness of cases, they, in turn, raise more questions that could be the basis of more focused research on the JP courts. For example:

  • What are the impacts of these types of sentences on the lives of the offenders?
  • What are the factors influencing the rate of guilty pleas?
  • What factors lead to a high rate of ex parte convictions (see notes to Tables 10 and 11)?
  • In what percentage of the cases represented by Table 13 did the accused person receive assistance?

JPs themselves were another source of background data on the operations of the court. In general, JPs said that case volume and patterns in JP court vary from community to community, depending on RCMP activity, economic conditions and a variety of local conditions. One JP in a small community said charges have increased tenfold in the last 12 years. Another, in a larger centre, said JP presiding time has increased almost fivefold in the last 8–10 years, largely because 90 percent of the cases Crown counsel would formerly have proceeded on summarily in Territorial Court now are heard in JP courts. The most commonly mentioned increases, by case type, in JP courts were in drug and alcohol-related cases (including bootlegging), impaired driving and assaults.

4.2 Impacts on Courtworkers

The impacts and implications of increased activity in JP courts for Courtworkers will be addressed in Section 5.2 and Section 5.3.

4.3 Assessments of the Adequacy of Representation in JP Courts

The majority of RCMP respondents felt that Courtworkers were doing an effective job on behalf of their clients. However, some felt that Courtworkers’ skill deficits were extremely serious, and one advocated for lawyer involvement in JP courts.

In general, lawyer respondents expressed a higher level of concern than other respondents about the adequacy of representation of accused persons in JP courts. In part, this is because, in the vast majority of situations, legal aid lawyers represent clients in JP courts only in show cause hearings.[1] For all other matters, which can include pleas, sentencing and occasionally trials, only Courtworkers are available to assist the accused. Two respondents stated that Courtworkers are not always able to attend JP courts in their community, so accused persons are, at times, without any support. One respondent said that legal counsel had been assigned to a JP court for criminal matters for a brief period. Several lawyers mentioned difficulties in locating JPs for show cause hearings.

The level of concern of lawyers about the ability of Courtworkers to adequately represent clients in JP courts was related to their confidence in the capabilities of the JPs. If JPs were seen as skilled – and some were seen as highly skilled – there was somewhat less concern about the performance of the Courtworkers. If both JPs and Courtworkers were perceived as lacking skills, there was serious concern about the adequacy of justice in JP court, and the ability of Courtworkers to protect the rights of accused persons. Although it was acknowledged that both Crown and the Legal Services Board review JP courts’ case decisions, there was a concern that this may not be a sufficient safeguard in and of itself.[2] In general, lawyers felt that the serious nature of some criminal cases heard in JP courts warrants concern about the skills of Courtworkers to adequately protect clients. They felt, for example, that:

  • Courtworkers might not foresee the implication of a guilty plea (e.g., in an impaired case) on sentence in the event of future impaired cases. Some respondents felt that accused persons sometimes plead guilty in JP court just “to get it over with” and because it is “faster and easier,” even if they should have representation.
  • Courtworkers might not discern if a JP has a conflict of interest.
  • Courtworkers might not understand the concept of reasonable doubt.
  • Courtworkers might not object if rules of evidence are not being followed.
  • Courtworkers might not be aware that a sentence is too high. One respondent felt that JP sentences in smaller, outlying communities are often too harsh. In some communities, justice committees (or what one community calls an elders “senate”) make recommendations for sentence in JP courts, so the role of the Courtworker is made more complex by this community dynamic.

For some lawyers, the level of concern was high enough to recommend that lawyers be used in JP courts. For most, it was felt that Courtworkers need significantly more training to handle the expansion of their role as a resource for a lawyer to include representation of clients and dealing with substantive legal issues.

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