Court Site Study of Adult Unrepresented Accused in the Provincial Criminal Courts (Part 2: Site Reports)

Chapter 7: St. John's, Newfoundland

7.1 Objectives, report format and methodology

Key Objectives

The Department of Justice and the Federal/Provincial/Territorial Permanent Working Group on Legal Aid retained the research team to conduct a national study to measure:

  • The frequency with which accused persons are appearing before the court without representation – at different stages of the court process.
  • The impacts of self-represented accused – on themselves, on other groups involved in the court process, and on the courts in total.

A brief overview of the full national study – covering nine court sites – has been presented previously. The methodology for the St. John's part of the national study followed a strategy for data collection and site visits similar to that followed in the other sites.

7.1.1 Report Format

The findings for St. John's are presented in seven sections.

Section 1 outlines the objectives of the study, describes the format of the report, and discusses the methodology used to collect information.
Section 2 provides important contextual information for interpreting the findings of the report. Special attention is give to key characteristics of the community, the court, legal aid, duty counsel and disclosure.
Section 3 describes how frequently self-represented accused appear at different stages of the court process.
Section 4 explores the frequency with which accused persons have other types of representation, and how those frequencies vary at different stages of the court process.
Section 5 focuses on the important impacts of self-representation on the accused. The section discusses both perceptions provided from our interviews and empirical evidence from data especially collected for the project.
Section 6 then describes other significant impacts due to the presence of unrepresented accused – on victims, on the key groups involved in the courts (e.g. legal aid, duty counsel, Crown attorneys, judges and court personnel) and on court operations (including: court workloads and time to deal with and dispose of cases).
Section 7 completes the report with key overall findings and solutions that have been suggested by those interviewed in St. John's.

7.1.2 Methodology

For St. John's, information was available on the question of unrepresented accused from three sources: 

  • Key person interviews with over 20 key informants (judges, Crowns, legal aid staff and management, court administration and court clerks, private bar members, local service agencies, etc.).  Interviews were from 30 minutes to 1 hour duration, covered all aspects of the study and most were conducted by two interviewees.  The anonymity of those interviewed was ensured.
  • A Court Observation sample.  A local person with extensive experience in the St. John's court was hired to sit in court and directly observe and record information on the events and decisions that occurred in 191 case court appearances over a period of ten days.  Those observations took place in first-appearance court, and during the non-trial portion at the beginning of the day in other courts, in June and July of 2002[55].
  • A Disposed Cases sample.  This file consists of data on all 1,490 court appearances for 501 cases[56] that involved a Criminal Code offence or violation of another federal statute, and were disposed in September, October or November 2001.
    • The file was constructed by combining data manually coded from court records (informations and reporters' notes) and data especially extracted from the court automated information system (PCIS).
      • Since the court in St John's does not systematically record the type of legal representation at each appearance for cases in the automated information system (PCIS), it was necessary to hire a local person knowledgeable in court administrative procedures to perform a manual search of court records and to record – for each of  the 1,255 counts  associated with the  501 disposed cases[57]–  the type of  representation data that was available. Even then, data on representation was recorded on manual records for only the first and last appearances. 
      • The original data from PCIS was provided in three separate tables.  The first contained data on events and decisions that happened at each individual appearances (e.g., date of appearance, plea, bail, reason for appearance).  The second contained data on the case/defendant (e.g. date of birth and number of prior convictions).  And the third contained data on each offence (e.g., offence type, disposition and sentence).  Information from these three data files was combined for specific cases by the researchers, using common identifiers that were contained in each file (e.g., the case/count identifier and the defendant identifier).
      • The manual and automated data were then combined into the Disposed Cases sample.

In all parts of the project, we received excellent co-operation and assistance from all those we asked to participate in the study.  We also gratefully acknowledge the very able assistance and expertise of the two St. John's-based persons who assisted in observing in court and in preparing the Disposed Cases file of data.

7.1.3 An Important Caveat

We were fortunate to have designed the study to ensure that we would have multiple sources of data to conduct a study of this type.  This design strategy was especially important in St. John's.

As in most other courts in the current study, court manual and automated systems had not been designed to collect accurate and comprehensive data on either the frequency or impact of legal representation.   Before reporting the results of the data analysis, we therefore conducted a number of checks to assess the extent to which we should rely on different sources of data for different parts of the analysis. 

In particular, we concluded that the analysis for St. John's should place more emphasis on the Court Observation (as opposed to the Disposed Cases data) when discussing frequency of representation at first appearance – or non-final appearance.  The court observations were carried out by a very knowledgeable person specially trained by the researchers to observe matters related to legal representation.  Thus, when we noticed that statistics based on data from the Disposed Cases file gave estimates of self-representation at first appearance that were considerably higher than estimates of self-representation at first and other non-final appearances based on the direct court observation – and on our interviews – and on the researcher's own observations – we felt it reasonable to discount the first appearance statistics from the Disposed Cases file.[58] 

  • On the other hand, a comparison of statistics at last appearance from the Court Observation file, with the analogous statistics from the court observation, strongly suggested that both gave reasonably consistent results.

The following sections will make it clear when these inconsistencies in the different sources of St.. John's data should be explicitly taken into account.[59]

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