Legal Aid, Courtworker, and Public Legal Education and Information Needs in the Yukon Territory: Final Report

3.  Circuit Courts

3.  Circuit Courts

Feedback on circuit courts should also take into consideration the activities and location of courtworkers and the proposed developments for JP courts. These are discussed in the next two sections.

3.1 Background

Circuit courts are a key delivery structure for justice in the Yukon. They serve 13 communities with varying frequency and duration, as shown in Table 6.

Table 6
Circuit Frequency in 2002 for Legal Aid Defence Counsel
Communities Frequency of Circuits Per Year Length of Circuits Number and Type of Legal Aid Counsel
Dawson City 6 3 days 2 staff
Watson Lake 6 2 days 1 staff; 1 private
Old Crow 5 1 day 1 staff
Teslin 5 1 day 1 staff
Haines Junction/Burwash 5 2 days 1 staff
Faro/Ross River 5 2 days 1 staff
Mayo 5 1 day 1 staff
Beaver Creek 2 1 day 1 staff
Pelly Crossing/Carmacks 5 2 days 1 staff
Carcross 5 1 day 1 staff

The same staff and/or private lawyers are assigned to the specified communities for the entire year, thus ensuring case continuity. The private lawyer has a block contract for Watson Lake. If a conflict of interest arises in a particular case, an additional counsel may have to be assigned on a certificate basis, or counsel will simply switch assignments for a particular circuit. However, this situation rarely occurs.

3.2 Advantages of Circuits

The primary merit of circuits is that they bring the justice system to smaller communities that cannot sustain resident courts, rather than conduct all court operations in Whitehorse. Given the majority of First Nations population in half of the smaller communities, circuits also represent a higher level of service to Aboriginal persons than might otherwise be the case. Another advantage is that accused persons often receive help in communities on the circuit days that they would likely not get in Whitehorse. Most defence counsel said that, to whatever extent possible, they would handle most matters that are on the docket, irrespective of whether the accused would meet eligibility requirements. For example, this might include diversions or speaking to sentence where the matter would likely involve only a probation order. Similarly, unless an individual was clearly not in financial need, they would receive help. Thus, while not a "presumed eligibility" system such as exists in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, the lawyers referred to this system as "practical delivery" or "legal aid pro bono" work. One respondent said that this approach derives in part from the expectation of the bench that legal aid should have a broader obligation to clients in isolated communities.

A variant of this "practical delivery" was also cited by one courtworker, who said individuals in smaller communities expect courtworkers to deal with a wider variety of issues than they do in larger centres. For example, victims would sometimes expect her to facilitate being heard in court, even if she were representing the accused. Thus roles that would obviously be seen as in conflict in other situations tend to be blurred into a general function of "helping things happen." Nonetheless, the courtworker clearly articulated the necessity of clarifying to the victim her role on behalf of the accused, and the limits to which she could help the victim with her/his concerns.

For the most part, continuity of counsel is achieved on circuit through the assignment of specific counsel for a given community throughout the year (as per Table 6). Community justice workers and courtworkers corroborated that continuity of counsel is not a problem for most clients.

3.3 Disadvantages of Circuits

The primary disadvantage of circuits is the speed with which matters have to be addressed because of the limited time in the community and the large number of cases involved. Respondents said it was not uncommon to arrive in a community at 7:00 p.m., the evening before court day, and have 20 people needing assistance, many on trial matters. Significant contacts could seldom be arranged with clients in between circuits because of distance, lack of telephones, and lack of client initiative or confidence. Several respondents felt that such contact might be enhanced if there were increased funding to achieve a stronger courtworker presence in the communities. Others suggested that community visits by the lawyer one week in advance of the circuit would significantly help in case preparation. This is clearly a funding issue. Another initiative currently being planned - to expand the role of justices of the peace in certain communities - may require defence counsel to visit certain communities between regular circuits, or to establish telephone links with the JP court for mid-circuit hearings. This initiative would have significant funding implications for YLSS, and is discussed in Section 5.

According to respondents, the main negative impacts of having to conduct business so quickly on circuits are: less case preparation time; less time to understand the dynamics and relationships in the communities that may affect cases (although this is partially offset by having the same community assignment); less client confidence in the justice system (as reported by community justice workers and courtworkers) because the court has no permanent presence in the community; and some case delays. Despite reporting that clients lack confidence in the justice system, the majority of community justice and courtworker respondents reported that individuals, for the most part, understand what is happening in their case.

It was anticipated that the infrequency of some circuits would result in significant delays and prolonged completion times for cases on circuits. However, the data in Table 7 shows that, while average case times in circuit communities do tend to be longer than in the resident court in Whitehorse, they are not dramatically so. For 1999 and 2000, young offender circuit cases tended on average to be completed faster than in the resident court in Whitehorse. The implementation of the Youth Justice Panel in Whitehorse may account for the speed-up in youth case time in 2001. Average time for adult cases has been consistently longer in circuit communities, but only by three days in 2001. One respondent suggested that delays on circuit can also be an advantage to some clients; e.g., by enabling them to "get their act together," or to earn some money before sentencing.

Table 7: Average Time from Case Initiation to Final Disposition in Territorial Criminal Court (in Days)

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