Legal Service Provision in Northern Canada
Summary of Research in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and the Yukon



Circuit courts are a significant feature of the court structure in all three northern jurisdictions. The impact of the circuit court structure on legal service provision and the extent of unmet need in circuit courts is somewhat affected by geography, as better access to communities appears to make the circuit court process easier to manage for all involved.

Discussions related to the impact of the circuit court structure on legal service provision centred on three themes: quality of service provision, delays in service provision, and continuity of counsel.

At the end of this section, in 5.4, is a table summarizing the extent and nature of unmet need in relation to circuit courts.

5.1 Quality of service provision

All three jurisdictions reported that the circuit court structure has a negative impact on the quality of service provision. In particular, it was noted that circuit courts are characterized by heavy dockets, compressed schedules, and pressure to speed up the process. In Nunavut and the Northwest Territories, there were also concerns expressed about accessing clients beforehand for case preparation, particularly in situations where the entire court party must travel together from community to community by special charter.

However, it should also be noted that respondents from each jurisdiction also felt that circuit courts are necessary in order to ensure access to justice in the communities (as opposed to holding court only in the three capital cities).

5.2 Delays in service provision

The jurisdictions reported differing opinions with respect to delays in service provision on circuit courts.

  • The Northwest Territories reported that delays are not a significant factor, largely because there is a policy not to adjourn circuit courts until the docket is completed (it was noted that this increases the pressure on all individuals involved in the circuit court).
  • In the Yukon, some delays were reported and the average case time appears to be slightly longer than in the resident court. However, delays were not perceived as a significant issue.
  • In Nunavut, there was a significant perception that delays are frequent and substantial, particularly in the Baffin region. However, court dockets indicate that slightly over half of the delays occur for normal reasons that would affect any court. It was suggested that aspects of Inuit culture related to the immediacy of dealing with issues affect the impact of delays, making even short delays very difficult for the accused and the community to the point where some respondents felt that delays in circuit court cases represent an undue hardship for the accused.

It should be noted that, with circuit courts, an adjournment from one sitting to the next may mean a delay of a month or two, rather than of a few days, as is frequently the case with resident courts. Therefore, any delay in a circuit court is likely to have a more significant impact on all parties involved than a delay in a resident court.

5.3 Continuity of counsel

Continuity of counsel was not reported as a concern in the Northwest Territories and the Yukon, as both jurisdictions assign specific counsel to a circuit or community, ensuring continuity in representation. In Nunavut, the perception is that discontinuity of counsel is a significant issue in the Baffin region, but not in the Kitikmeot and Kivalliq regions, where the same clinic lawyers are always duty counsel on circuit, so avoiding discontinuity. Some respondents in Nunavut believed that discontinuity is related to presumed eligibility. However, as the presumed eligibility system exists throughout both the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, and concerns were reported only in the Baffin region, it appears possible to have continuity of counsel in legal systems using presumed eligibility.

5.4 Unmet need resulting from the circuit court structure

Table 5.1 summarizes the extent and nature of unmet need resulting from the circuit court structure in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and the Yukon.

Table 5.1 - Unmet Need Resulting from the Circuit Court Structure
Jurisdiction Unmet Need
Northwest Territories Under-representation may occur in communities outside of Yellowknife, primarily because of the impact of time and access constraints on quality of service.
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