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Ken Kelertas

Lawyers express frustration over cancellation of new courthouse for Halton Region

Thursday, May 21, 2020 @ 9:53 AM | By John Schofield

There have been days at the antiquated courthouse in Milton, Ont., when judges were forced to temporarily close courtrooms because too much debris was falling from the ceiling.

So lawyers in surrounding Halton Region, just west of Toronto, are disappointed by the Ontario government’s decision to cancel a proposed, state-of-the-art courthouse in Oakville that was slated to serve one of Canada’s fastest growing areas.

The seven-storey, 25-courtroom Halton Region Consolidated Courthouse, which was estimated to cost between $200 million and $499 million, would have replaced the aging courthouses in both Milton and Burlington. Officially announced in 2017, it was expected to open in late 2023 or early 2024. Construction was due to start as early as June.

“This investment will be repurposed to transform and update Ontario’s severely antiquated justice system and address immediate infrastructure needs at the courthouses in Milton and Burlington,” read a Friday afternoon news release issued May 8 by the Ministry of the Attorney General. “Shifting traditional investments toward innovation and new technology will move more services online and position Ontario at the forefront of building the modern justice system of the future.”

Ken Kelertas, president of the Halton County Law Association

Ken Kelertas, president of the Halton County Law Association and the director of legal services and legal counsel for the Halton Region Police Service, said the decision was made without consulting the local bar.

“Our first question is where do we go from here,” Kelertas told The Lawyer’s Daily. “There is no real opportunity to renovate or expand those facilities (in Milton and Burlington). I don’t believe it’s possible.”

The litany of problems is long: Millions of dollars have been spent on mould remediation at the Milton courthouse, he said, and an asbestos problem was discovered in 2018. Prisoners have to be transported through public areas and the prisoner holding facilities are inadequate. Judges also have to cross through public corridors.

“We’ve said for several years,” noted Kelertas, “that there’s a tragedy just waiting to happen.”

In addition, he said, the Milton and Burlington courthouses are not connected by a public transit link and are 30 kilometres apart, so it’s difficult to quickly shift judicial resources to optimize court time.

“We support the attorney general in his attempts to try to transform the justice system in Ontario but, in the meantime, we have a real crisis in Halton,” added Kelertas. “Regardless of the outcome of the attorney general’s planning, you need to have bricks and mortar.”

Ontario Bar Association president Colin Stevenson said in an e-mailed statement that members in the area are concerned about access to justice following the government’s announcement. “In addition to developing innovative ways to deliver justice, it is also crucial that, where courthouse space is necessary, there is safe space able to serve the needs of justice in the region,” he added. “We are talking to government about these requirements and are looking for quick action.”

Brendan Neil, treasurer of the Halton County Law Association

Milton criminal trial lawyer Brendan Neil, who also serves as regional director of the Criminal Lawyers’ Association and treasurer of the Halton County Law Association, said the Ford government’s decision came as a shock, “and the biggest surprise was we learned through a press release.”

Neil agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic has underlined how Ontario’s justice system is decades behind when it comes to technology. “Is that a worthwhile investment? Absolutely it is,” he said in an interview. “Is it going to solve Halton’s problem? Absolutely not.”

“It doesn’t provide us with any more capacity,” he added, “and it’s the fastest growing region in the country. The problem is the investment in technology is at the sacrifice of a building that basically needs a wrecking ball taken to it.”

As a criminal lawyer, Neil said, one of the biggest frustrations — apart from the fact that the courthouses are divided — is that there are virtually no private spaces to confer with clients.

Attorney General Doug Downey

In an interview with The Lawyer’s Daily, Attorney General Doug Downey said that, while he did speak with some members of the law community in Halton Region before the government decided to cancel the project, “it’s a question of how far and wide you do the consultation. And, ultimately, in the time of COVID, we have to move fast.”

He denied that the decision was motivated by pandemic-induced financial pressures on the province, but agreed that COVID-19 has accelerated technological change in Ontario’s justice system and underlined the urgent need to modernize and expand access to justice. “We need to create a system that’s more accessible,” he added. “I’ve wanted to move forward with this for a very long time.”

Downey said the province will still make a “substantial investment” in upgrading the Milton and Burlington courthouses and it will bring forward a more detailed plan in the “next several weeks.”

He said the decision should not be read as a signal that other justice infrastructure projects are at risk — such as Toronto’s new, 17-storey Ontario Court of Justice building, which is under construction near city hall downtown.

“This is an opportunity not just to change how we’re doing things, but to go to why we’re doing them and how they add value,” Downey said. “This is transformational.”

In a news release, the Hamilton-Brantford Building and Construction Trades Council also expressed disappointment in the cancellation, especially in the wake of the province’s decision to quash the proposed, $1 billion Hamilton LRT. The winning bid team for the Halton Region courthouse was led by Fengate Asset Management, with Pomerleau serving as the design-build contractor and SNC-Lavalin as the project’s maintenance provider.

“If the region is losing almost $1.5 billion in direct public infrastructure investments, there is a real fear that the local economy will fall into further recession in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis,” Mark Ellerker, business manager and financial secretary-treasurer of the Hamilton-Brantford Building and Construction Trades Council, said in the release.

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