The provincial government approved a $30,000 expenditure on a third-party space planner with hopes of addressing a chronic lack of space for two Indigenous courts in New Westminster, according to documents obtained by the Record.
The Ministry of Justice said it’s working with that planner to address their preliminary findings and recommendations.
The New West Law Courts has two Indigenous courts – a criminal court that primarily deals in sentencing for accused individuals who self-identify as Indigenous and a child protection court that aims to reduce child apprehensions. The courts intend to reduce overrepresentation of Indigenous people in the criminal justice and foster care systems.
Both courts have significant space restrictions, causing them to function as standing-room-only spaces, according to Ministry of Justice internal emails and New West city Coun. Chuck Puchmayr.
“This is really such a powerful tool for Indigenous justice, who are so overly represented in our criminal justice system, and then to really give them this terrible – like a cloak room – to do the trials, I thought it was really unfair,” Puchmayr told the Record in August.
B.C. government emails obtained by the Record through a freedom-of-information request indicate the matter emerged as a priority in February last year – the request sought records as far back as Jan. 1, 2017, but the earliest records returned are dated in early February 2019.
According to a Court Services Branch briefing note, dated Feb. 4, neither the child protection court nor the criminal court “adequately allow for a feeling of direct involvement with the active participants in the proceedings and the court elders.”
Each time the Indigenous courts convene, the memo notes, a $200 furniture move is required – a “minimal” but “ongoing cost to the ministry” that is “still not able to satisfy the needs of this court.”
The issue has only gotten worse over the years, according to the memo, as more resources have been dedicated to the court, including a probation officer and social workers, with “increased need for participants to either be directly involved at the [sentencing] circle or in the gallery.”
Staff proposed using an unused half of a former jury selection space to be created as a flexible space for supreme and provincial courts, as well as both Indigenous courts.
The matter was not addressed again until June 5, 2019, the day after city council sent a letter to Justice Minister David Eby highlighting the issues with the local Indigenous courts.
Ryan Mahar, senior manager of court administration at New West Law Courts, offered further details of the proposed solution.
That included using the jury selection space, with a moveable wall to divide the room, as “dedicated … ‘down’ space for the court elders, while the other half could be dedicated to Indigenous Court support workers to use when meeting with court participants prior to sentencing.”
It also included converting two provincial court conference rooms into further flexible space.
In an Aug. 15 email, Maher told CSB officials he believed the renovations could increase the use of some of the court space by “over 300%” each month.
Maher added he had a space planner come to the courthouse to give input on his suggestions, and said the project was ready for next steps – drawing up plans and construction estimates, which required $30,000.
The ministry said in an email statement last week it is “committed” to ensuring the problem is resolved, and it is confident it will be able to “explore and address feasible solutions for all those involved.”
However, it did not say if or when such a project may be completed.