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Legal Aid Manitoba encouraged by response to weekend phone-in bail court

Monday, December 23, 2019 @ 10:30 AM | By Terry Davidson

Legal aid officials in Manitoba have seen a “positive” response in their search for outside criminal lawyers to work a planned phone-in weekend bail court for the province’s remote north.  

Legal Aid Manitoba (LAM) Deputy Executive Director Sam Raposo said LAM has “received inquiries from interested practitioners” from the private bar for the phone-in court — a six-month pilot project to address long remand stays in the vast area serviced by the Thompson city courthouse, the province’s northernmost court.

Aside from dealing with local in-custody matters, the Thompson court serves distant communities such as God’s River, Lac Brochet, Leaf Rapids, Norway House and South Indian Lake.

Most are First Nations communities.

As it currently sits, said Raposo, accused in distant communities outside Thompson can apply for bail over the phone from a police detachment within 24 hours of their arrest. This phone-in hearing would be done with a justice of the peace.

However, there is the possibility a lawyer would not be available 24/7 to deal with it. Plus, Raposo said, lawyers “generally decline this sort of bail application because the ability to property review the particulars at this stage is very limited or non-existent.”

The next step is accused are slotted to be taken to the Thompson courthouse to go before a provincial court judge, but this can potentially take several days due to things such as the availability of transportation, such as planes.

Once in Thompson, accused are kept in RCMP holding cells and wait for a bail hearing. But delays can occur if, say, the accused arrives in Thompson too late in the day to make their court appearance, or if their matter goes unheard due to an overcrowded docket.

Generally, if their matter cannot be resolved within three days, they are transported to jails such as The Pas Correctional Centre or the Brandon Correctional Centre, both of which are hundreds of miles away.

Raposo said the weekend phone-in bail court could cut down on the delay and potentially lead to eligible accused being granted bail there in their home communities.  

“The addition of Legal Aid duty counsel on weekends would permit a meaningful review of matters by defence counsel, and the ability (where appropriate) to effectively address any issues with the Crown and possibly negotiate a consent release, reducing the need to transport accused out of their home communities to have a bail hearing in Thompson and increasing timely access to justice while also creating efficiencies for the system as a whole.”

The launch of the pilot project comes in the wake of two separate criminal cases in which the accused, both from remote First Nations communities, were freed of charges and ultimately awarded costs after they sat for weeks in jail awaiting bail hearings.

Court adjournments, repeated remands, communication breakdowns and long distances between jails and the Thompson courthouse all contributed to the delays in getting bail.  

In that ruling, Queen’s Bench Justice Chris Martin found “the violations of … [their] Charter rights were directly related to long-standing and glaring system issues” in the north.  

He also pointed to the hustle-and-bustle of the “Thompson judicial area,” which serves 16 “outlying communities [that] depend on Thompson’s court services, particularly for bail.”

Lawyers who work the weekend phone-in court will be paid $260 per half day, the same rate paid to those working the weekend court in Winnipeg, said Raposo.

The project would cost between $55,000 and $60,000 annually and would be paid for by LAM.

Raposo, citing the fact that the Request for Proposal had not yet closed, declined to comment on how many lawyers have stepped forward or on how many would be needed.

LAM could end up hiring just one lawyer for the phone-in court or hire multiple lawyers and possibly place them on a shift rotation, he said.  

The Request for Proposal closes Dec. 31.

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