Provincial court Judge Harold Porter benched an attempt last week by lawyers in Clarenville to get him to appear at the Clarenville court in person for a case, rather than to hear proceedings by video conferencing.
Since the judge in Clarenville retired a few months ago, Porter has presided over both courts at Grand Bank and Clarenville, and has done much of the sitting for short appearances at Clarenville through video conferencing from Grand Bank.
Video conferencing was adopted by the province’s courts a few years ago.
It saves travel costs and time by having a judge in another part of the province preside over a short court appearance by video link to the courtroom, instead of having to make the trip.
It also works in cases where a prisoner can take part in a short court appearance from prison by videoconferencing rather than having to be transported to the court house.
The new technology was aimed at increasing efficiency and safety in the province’s court system.
Last week, however, in the case in Clarenville of a man facing three charges — possession of marijuana, and two impaired driving-related offences — a pre-trial application for relief under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was filed by the accused.
The provincial Crown attorney in the case, Patricia Carpenter, filed an application last Tuesday to request “the personal presence of a judge, the accused and counsel” for the pre-trial application hearing.
Federal Crown attorney Philip Whalen and defence lawyer Gregory French didn’t file a similar application. However, both indicated to the judge they agreed with the position taken by the provincial Crown.
Late last week Porter handed down a lengthy ruling denying the provincial Crown’s application.
In the ruling, Porter noted there has been a reciprocal arrangement between the judges sitting in the Grand Bank and Clarenville provincial court centres for over 20 years — 12 of which he has been involved in the exchange.
“This has not been the most efficient use of resources,” Porter said.
He cited previous cases as examples, one in which court time in Grand Bank was cleared for five days so he could travel to Clarenville to preside over a trial set for five days. When he got to Clarenville, there was a plea change and a very short court appearance.
“The trial did not proceed: instead, there was a last-minute guilty plea and sentencing adjourned until April,” Porter wrote.
“That meant that both court centres were now idled, at least in terms of trial time, for five days each. Effectively, 10 days of court docket time were lost, all because the court had granted the request by counsel to block out that time for trial.”
In the second example, Porter noted that six days were squandered.
He wrote: “Let me hasten here to directly address the comment in the written application to the effect that this is not a matter of convenience. There are other adjectives besides inconvenient to describe driving a total of four hours only to then postpone a trial. However, it can fairly be said that the responsibility for the loss of a total of 16 days of docket time in those two examples may be laid directly at the feet of the applicant.”
And again: “Diligent counsel, working together, can and should avoid squandering the scarce time available for trials on the docket. Regrettably, this is not always the case.”
Porter pointed out he reviewed the statistics for the sitting time for the Clarenville provincial court for the last three months which included everything heard in open court, including criminal and regulatory matters, small claims matters, family law matters, and child welfare cases.
“In March 2014, the court in Clarenville was open for business for 19 days. It sat for a total of 26.5 hours, less than 90 minutes per day. In April 2014, it sat 18 days, but only for 33.3 hours, less than two hours per day. In May 2014, the court was open for 20 days, and sat 34 hours, again, less than two hours per day,” the ruling stated.
“This small sample suggests that all of the matters being heard in the Clarenville court could be done in one week. Instead, they are scheduled out over the span of a month. That schedule is directly caused by the representations of counsel, which clearly have over-estimated the time required on the docket to hear matters.
Porter noted the application was the first objection to the established video link practice which he understood would continue until another judge is appointed to the Clarenville court.
In conclusion, Porter said that unless his decision is overturned by the superior court, or he is otherwise directed by his superiors, “we will continue to make use of the available technology to efficiently provide our service to the public.”
Porter also noted that if the vacancy is not filled in Clarenville and there is a circuit to Clarenville established for the court as happened in other jurisdictions, such as Placentia, then changes to the court docket schedule will have to be made.
“We may have to stop setting aside blocks of time for individual matters. Those blocks of time have consistently been not used, with the grossly inefficient results mentioned earlier, of the court sitting less than two hours per day,” he wrote.
“It might be that we will have to revert to the practice of using a general list, instead of a fixed date list, for trials. It is unnecessary to make that decision today, and so the status quo will continue pending the decision of the applicant as to whether the judicial vacancy is filled. It is difficult to predict how the matter will evolve.
“However, by bringing this application today, the Crown has prompted an examination of the scheduling practice of the court, which will no doubt lead to a significant change in how the docket of the Clarenville court will now operate.”