Saturday, December 12, 2009

 

Basi Virk thinking of changing venue to Victoria?

Full house of justice: Behind the scenes at Victoria Courthouse

The Victoria Courthouse is one of the few in the province that offer nearly every legal service under one roof. It's bursting at the seams.

BY RICHARD WATTS
TIMES COLONIST - Sept. 25, 2008

Lawyers, clerks and other court personnel prepare for proceedings in remand court, where everyone makes a first appearance, at the Victoria Courthouse.

Lawyers, clerks and other court personnel prepare for proceedings in remand court, where everyone makes a first appearance, at the Victoria Courthouse.
Photograph by: Darren Stone, Times Colonist


The Victoria Courthouse was too small, almost from the day it opened, and the stresses it faces every day continue to make it bulge and creak.

Every morning, people cram the corner hallway outside Courtroom 103, remand court, where everybody makes his or her first court appearance.

The courtroom space and seating outside barely accommodate the early morning press. Taking their turn to offer free legal advice, defence lawyers walk the hall asking in a loud voice if anyone needs to see duty counsel.

Outside each courtroom, the security guard posts daily lists, showing the names of people accused of a crime or having a case heard. And every day, people move about looking for their names.

Spanning the block from Burdett Avenue to Courtney Street and butting up to Blanshard Street, the Victoria Courthouse continues its work each day. It provides a crucial community forum where wrongs can be addressed, rights asserted and differences of opinion are given an impartial hearing.

It's hugely important work, with elements dating from the 13th century and the Magna Carta, in which were first written a person's habeas corpus rights (no imprisonment without a charge heard in court).

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It's a building struggling to carry on in the face of tough community problems. How else can you explain a public building -- where narcotics offences are routinely prosecuted -- that provides in its public washrooms a disposal box for drug users to safely discard used syringes?

Those public washrooms serve a larger community than those involved in the legal system. Homeless people strip and have a body wash or empty out their backpacks to rinse out and do laundry.

But the Victoria Courthouse carries on, completing its work, in an environment most people never notice.

It opened in 1962, after years of delays, when W.A.C. Bennett was premier, taking over from the old courthouse in Bastion Square, a building that now houses the B.C. Maritime Museum.

Back then the new building had only four floors and only four courtrooms occupying the top two levels.

In 1975, at a cost of nearly $1.9 million, another two floors were added. Policy and administrative bureaucrats occupy the sixth floor.

A library occupies most of the fifth floor. It's operated by the B.C. Courthouse Library Society and contains about 20,000 volumes, many of which have yet to be digitized.

The stacks contain volumes dating back as far as 1859, when Vancouver Island was still a colony. The library also contains subscriptions to legal databases, with information on topics as far ranging as human rights and property law.

It is open to the public and assists people trying to draw up their own will, research custody law or look into condominium, or strata, property matters.

The seven courtrooms on the third and fourth floors are normally reserved for Supreme Court, with the judge's chambers tucked in behind unmarked, locked doors.

Provincial court operates out of the seven courtrooms on the first and second floors. And provincial court judges have their offices tucked out of sight on the second floor, again behind unmarked, locked doors.

On the first floor, opening onto Courtney Street, lies the criminal registry, storing files going back at least 10 years for each of the thousands of cases heard or underway.

Also on the first floor and tucked in behind entrances guarded by sheriff's deputies are 12 holding cells. These are for people already in custody or refused bail and are used only when court is in session. People in custody are transported to the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre on Wilkinson Road.

All these services make the Victoria Courthouse what is now a provincial rarity. Of the 88 courthouses in B.C., only three others, Prince George, Kelowna and Kamloops, offer one-stop venues for the same range of legal practice and service.

So, inside the Victoria Courthouse sit the B.C. provincial court, the B.C. Supreme Court, youth court, family court, small-claims court and justices of the peace and, when it's convened, the B.C. Court of Appeal, the highest in the province.

All other courthouses in B.C. have either been split up due to workload, as in the Lower Mainland, or serve communities too small to justify the full range.

And on the back of the Victoria Courthouse building still sits the Victoria land titles office. It's where the titles and records of ownership of land and property are still held, despite an attempt by the province to shut it down a few years ago.

Accommodating all this service has meant renovations and adjustments that have left the building workable, but only just.

For example, two of the four courtrooms on the fourth floor are tiny rooms crammed off to the side. Originally, they were jury rooms, but they have been divided in half to provide extra court space.

On floors one and two, what were various other government offices have been taken over by provincial court, which gained a new prominence in 1990 when the province merged the old County Court with the Supreme Court. County Court was a holdover from the 19th century.

Hamar Foster, law professor at the University of Victoria, said from an administrative perspective having four levels of court -- provincial, county, supreme and appeals -- was just too cumbersome.

Now, six courtrooms regularly serve provincial court. And one remand court has been designated in recent months in which a justice of the peace presides.

All the renovations and additions are part of a process that former Supreme Court justice Bob Hutchison calls muddling through.

"It's grown like topsy," Hutchison said in an interview. "But they have muddled through just as everything gets done in this country."

The result is a building that functions only because the people who work in it make it function.
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These days, he said, the courthouse "meets the needs of the community at the end of the day because we make it."

Most agree the building is not up to 21st century standards. Electronics, for example, are a constant problem. This, when virtually every major case has some electronic component, like wire-tap evidence or electronic communications.

Victoria's courtrooms are barely wired for the mid-20th century, let alone the 21st, lacking a speaker system to properly amplify the voice of a witness.

Nils Jensen, a prosecutor who regularly employs computer programs to present evidence in complex fraud trials, said the Victoria Courthouse has a way to go to reach modern standards.

Jensen said Courtroom 20 in the Vancouver Law Courts, where the marathon Air India trial was conducted, is considered B.C.'s gold standard courtroom.

It has computer plug-ins, wireless Internet, a large, flat video screen for the jury, separate screens for the judge, lawyers and accused, digital recording, real-time transcription service and computer screen illustration capacity.

But in Victoria, Jensen said, clerks and staff members do "a great job of cobbling together what little technology we have. It keeps us stumbling through."

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Read the full article HERE. It's an unexpectedly charming introduction to the building where BC history will be made, if the Basi Virk - BC Rail Trial is transferred there. - BC Mary.

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