With the looming retirement of Justice Tom Melnick, the Kootenay Bar Association is concerned with getting access to a judge to hear court cases.
Andrew Mayes, a lawyer in Cranbrook, currently serves as the president of the Kootenay Bar Association, but is approaching the end of his one-year term at the end of February.
Mayes says the Bar has been lobbying the chief justice in B.C. to replace Justice Melnick when he retires.
At the present, Melnick is only working half-time to complete a report for the Electoral Boundaries Commission before full retirement and is not sitting for any jury trials.
When Melnick fully retires, local lawyers fear that will impact the amount of judge time in Cranbrook Supreme Court, which will have a resulting effect on cases.
“One of the major issues that the Bar has advised me of the drawbacks to not having a resident judge, is a problem of continuations with trials,” Mayes said. “It’s not uncommon that trials won’t get finished in the allotted time—that’s when you have a judge from the Lower Mainland or somewhere else in the province—conducting that trial.
“Then there is a scheduling problem as to when you can get this same judge back to continue the trial.”
Even with Melnick’s presence in Cranbrook, Supreme Court judges are being flown in from around the province to preside over cases.
“It’s important for the community as an institution, we had thought that our geography, our culture and the economics of the East Kootenays are distinct from other areas of the province, such as the Lower Mainland,” said Mayes, “and having a resident judge would allow that judge to develop a better understanding of the issues that primarily come before him or her on a daily basis.”
“There is an issue of out-of-town judges not being familiar with those type of things, the geography, cultural land marks, that type of thing, so more time is needed to bring them, so to speak, up to speed.”
The Kootenay Bar Association represents 125 lawyers in the East and West Kootenay and formed a committee last winter to lobby Chief Justice Hinkson for a full-time replacement.
“The advantage of having a resident judge is, from our experience, is that scheduling those matters are much more convenient and much sooner when you have a local judge so we are certainly sympathetic to Chief Justice Hinkson’s issues that he faces in administrating his court and applying the resources that are limited to the province,” Mayes said.
“He has indicated at the present time that our court utilization isn’t sufficient for him to believe that a full-time judge here would be fully occupied.”
However, Mayes added the data is trending towards increasing utilization of the Cranbrook Supreme Court.
“Our reports from counsel are that our trial lists are bigger and longer now and may be thus increasing,” Mayes said. “I’m certain that our chief justice will keep abreast of that and, with higher court utilization by counsel and people here in the East Kootenays, that he may revisit that decision.”
Until Chief Justice Hinkson revisits his decision, Cranbrook Supreme Court will be served by travelling judges, which essentially makes the best out of a bad situation.
“Our main concern is certainly that a judge attends and the chief justice has guaranteed us that he will not, for the short term at least, be reducing the about of judge time that we have been getting from out of town judges,” said Mayes. “But there is still the cost to fly those judges here, pay for their meals, accommodation, etc.”