25 July 2016

Justice and the budget #nlpoli

The latest in a string of little budget dramas ended on Friday afternoon. A group of lawyers that included former Conservative party president John Babb launched a court case to try and force the provincial government to re-open the courthouse in Harbour Grace.  So Friday afternoon ,  justice minister Andrew Parsons announced that the government had decided to reverse the decision to close the court buildings in Wabush and Harbour Grace.

Parsons said the government had managed to find savings to offset the cost of opening the courts. He also said the government would keep the courthouses open to avoid running afoul of  a recent Supreme Court of Canada decision in  R.v. Jordan.  Babb made the same argument about the need for the courthouse in Harbour Grace.

Both Babb and Parsons know that the entire dispute here is over a building and a couple of jobs that go with it.  They also know that the particular building makes absolutely no difference to scheduling a trial.  And therefore, they both know that the SCC decision in Jordan had nothing to do - truthfully - with  Parsons' decision.  Why they said something other than the truth on Friday is another matter. 
 Provincial Court chief judge Pam Goulding filed an affidavit and a brief as part of the law suit Babb and his associates launched.  In her brief, Goulding argues - essentially - that the government must continue to pour money into the courts.  Anything else would be unconstitutional.  It's very much in line with Babb's claim that "public safety is at risk."   

The facts say something else.  Neither holds any water. Goulding, for example, notes that the Provincial Court has closed court houses and converted districts to circuit courts.  What was supposed to happen in both the Provincial Courts and Supreme Courts in this province were in line with those earlier decisions and were made for the same reason of economy. 

All of this took place against the backdrop of news that two credit agencies had downgraded the provincial government's bond rating.   The announcement came with a serious caution from Moody's that if things don;t go swimmingly according to the government's plan,  they won't be able to raise any more cash by jacking up taxes and so on.

So when former Tory party president Babb screams for more money or Goulding resists any effort to find greater efficiency in her operation, they both ought to realise their position lacks a moral and ethical basis, let alone the factual one.  Goulding inherited a major problem from her husband and their partisan friends who engaged in the little bit of shuffling with the pair of them in September 2015.  She can and must find ways to reduce the cost of operating her courts.  One of them would be to convert more courts to circuit, like Wabush, Grand Falls-Windsor,  and Grand Bank and Clarenville.  Another would be to make greater use of video.

The simple truth is that the people of Newfoundland and Labrador cannot afford their way of thinking any longer, figuratively or, as Moody's makes plain, literally.  Goulding in particular needs to present a plan for reducing the cost of her operation by 30% while at the same time delivering the justice her court is constitutionally required to deliver.

Goulding knows there is little danger of running afoul of  recent SCC decision since none of the factors affecting the duration of a trial is contingent on the use of a specific court house.  She would have to get the Crown prosecutors and defence lawyers to sort themselves out but they are the main reason cases drag on and court time gets wasted.

At the same time, we ought to be concerned about the constant beep-beep noise from Confederation Building this summer as the current crowd running the place have backed off one one decision after another.   It looks very similar to what happened in 2013 with the Conservatives and that is a bad sign.

The financial situation facing the province is worse than it was in 2013.  Heck, the situation we now face is worse than it was this spring.  Does anyone in the government have a viable plan to get us through the next few years in one piece?