The Nunavut Court of Justice - Formative Evaluation

6. Court Office Management and Operations

6. Court Office Management and Operations

6.1. Introduction

This section of the report addresses the efficiency and effectiveness of management and operations in the NCJ office, as distinct from the broader administration of justice issues examined in Section 5. The establishment of the new Court in 1999 presented challenges with respect to implementing court operations. Two factors were especially challenging from the beginning. First, the Iqaluit facility where the Court continued to reside after division was entirely inadequate. For its first year of operation, the NCJ shared a relatively small and ill-equipped building with the new Nunavut Department of Justice, the Crown prosecutor's office, and Maliganik Tukisiniakvik, the Iqaluit-based legal aid office. While Nunavut Justice and the Crown prosecutors moved to other premises, Maliganik Tukisiniakvik remained and continued to share the original building with the NCJ. The NCJ did not move to a new, dedicated Court building until March 2006.

The second challenge to the NCJ from its inception was the commitment of the Government of Nunavut and the NCJ to fill as many staff positions as possible with Inuit employees. This is unanimously viewed by key informants and community respondents as a positive and responsible approach to staffing. However, it has required sustained effort by management in training and mentoring new staff members who have not had previous Court experience or, in many cases, previous office experience of any kind. Respondents agree that persistence by both management and Inuit employees has resulted in an effective Court staff that will, in turn, pass on its skills to others.

While challenges remain, improvements have been made with respect to continuity of staff, levels of training, and the computerization of case files. (The latter is an ongoing process.) Supervisory staff members are active in training, mentoring, directing and monitoring non-supervisory staff. It is anticipated the recent move to the new Courthouse will further improve the working conditions for Court staff and will thereby continue to increase efficiency in the Court office.

6.2. The Adequacy of Processes to Plan, Implement and Coordinate Activities

6.2.1. Operational Structure

The NCJ operates with two complementary administrative structures. The first is Court Services Division, under the authority of the Deputy Minister of Justice for Nunavut. The second is the Nunavut Court of Justice administration, responsible ultimately to the senior judge.

The senior management of Court Services (under the Department of Justice) comprises the Director of Court Services, supported by the Manager, Business Planning and Support and the Manager, Court Operations. The Manager, Business Planning and Support is responsible for finance and planning, as well as for the Sheriff's Office. The Manager, Court Operations is responsible for Court administration for both criminal and civil matters. Each of the senior managers is responsible for maintaining effective operations in the NCJ, as well as for training and mentoring staff.

The NCJ administration comprises an administrator responsible for judicial services and judges' secretaries. This structure includes the Administrator of the Justice of the Peace Program, as all JPs are responsible to the senior judge.

6.2.2. Judges' Workloads

When the NCJ was established in 1999, there were no reliable caseload statistics to inform the decision regarding the number of judges needed. The decision was especially problematic as the single-level Court was a new entity that had not previously existed in Canada. As a result, there is now clear consensus among key informants, including all lawyers, JPs, judges and others, as well as among community respondents, that at least one more resident judge is required in addition to the current three. Many key informants stated that two or even three additional judges are warranted.

The travel obligations of the judges, their administrative load, including preparing deputy judges, the expanding size of the bar, and the difficult nature of the cases the judges hear were all cited as reasons why the current bench is stretched beyond reasonable capacity. A few key informants commented that it would be extremely useful to have a judge with a focused family law background. Most informants were unequivocal in stating that the communities of Nunavut were better served by resident judges with their in-depth knowledge of community norms and Inuit culture than even the best deputy judges.

6.2.3 Criminal Caseload

Table 7 indicates criminal caseload for the Court for the period January 2002 to the end of 2005 (estimated from September to December 2005). The caseload in terms of the total number of charge appearances has increased substantially over that period by 81 percent, from 18,257 to 33,111. The same data are represented graphically in Figure 3.

Table 7: Criminal Caseload January 1, 2002 to December 31, 2005[36]
Activity 2002 2003 2004 2005
(to Sep 30)
New information sworn[38] 2,822 3,007 3,220 2,143 3,095
Scheduled appearances/hearings 670 692 702 542 783
Total number of charges addressed in Court 6,387 6,973 7,729 7,268 10,498
Total number of charge appearances[39] 18,257 21,034 27,424 22,923 33,111

Criminal Caseload January 1, 2002 to December 31, 2005

[ Description ]

It should be noted that while the number of information sworn in the three-year period indicated in Table 7 and Figure 3 increased somewhat (from 2,822 to 3,095), the total number of charges addressed in Court increased at a higher rate (from 6,387 to 10,498). This would suggest that multiple charges are increasingly being associated with a single information. Further, the most substantial increase occurs with respect to the total number of charge appearances (from 18,257 to 33,111). This seemingly disproportionate jump is likely due to cases being adjourned a number of times before being resolved, thus presenting the Court with high numbers of appearances, many of which are repeats. The fact remains, however, that the Court is faced with substantial and increasing numbers of cases to handle and appearances to address.

Table 8 indicates the total number of new, completed and pending charges for the period January 1, 2003 to September 30, 2005.[40]

Table 8: Charges January 1, 2003 to September 30, 2005
Total information sworn Total charges sworn Total charges completed Total charges pending
8,370 15,500 12,518 2,982

The information in Table 8 indicates both the volume of cases being addressed by the NCJ and, perhaps more importantly, the number of charges pending. In any jurisdiction, the reasons vary with respect to the number of pending charges. Concern has been expressed that Nunavut's pending charges may be directly linked to avoidable Court delays. (This question is addressed above.) Regardless of the variety of factors affecting processing times, there is consensus among key informants that the perceived shortage of resident judges is an issue that affects – directly or indirectly – the court process, especially in the communities.

6.2.4. Civil and Family Caseload

Tables 9 and 10[41] indicate the rate of increase in the number of civil and family files from 2002 to 2005 (civil and family files are combined in these tables). Table 9 shows the number of new files each year and the percentage change over the previous year.

Table 9: Yearly Changes in Civil and Family Files
  2002 2003 2004 2005 (to Sep 30) 2005 (estimated)[42]
New files 431 664 659 491 709
% change over previous year   54.1 (0.7) (25.4) (data only to Sep 30) 8.0

Table 10 shows the numbers for Civil Chambers hearings in the three busiest NCJ Courts (Iqaluit, Cambridge Bay and Rankin Inlet) for May, September and December from 2002 to 2005.[43]

Table 10: Civil Chambers Hearings in Iqaluit, Cambridge Bay, Rankin Inlet
Time period # files heard % change over year Time period # files heard % change over year Time period # files heard % change over year
May 2002 26   Sep 2002 24   Dec 2002 36  
May 2003 41 58 Sep 2003 37 54 Dec 2003 35 (2.7)
May 2004 43 5 Sep 2004 65 76 Dec 2004 60 71
May 2005 56 30 Sep 2005 64 (1.5)      

As the above tables indicate and as noted earlier in the report, the numbers of civil and family cases are increasing substantially. As in the criminal area, these increases have implications for judges' workloads.

It is reasonable to say that the workload of the resident Nunavut judges is substantial. Key informants were clear that judges' workload and the question of the number of judges needed should be assessed on criteria that match the Nunavut reality, not on the basis of comparative activities in the south. Informants cited several reasons for this. First, the travel responsibilities of Nunavut judges are extremely challenging. Not only are vast distances covered at all times of year (often in bad weather), but the facilities for visitors in many of the communities are barely adequate. Judges are on circuit one week out of every three. While they receive standard holiday time, Nunavut judges are not allotted judgement writing weeks, as is done in most other jurisdictions (noted above). Table 11 provides an indication of the increasing numbers of Court sittings and the extent of the demands on the Judges.

Table 11: Court Scheduling for 2004 and 2005[44]
  Non-jury circuit weeks Iqaluit Court weeks Jury trials Non-scheduled Court sittings
2004 45 26 16 20
2005 50 26 28 + 20 +

Second, as key informants indicated, the nature of the cases heard by Nunavut judges – a high proportion of domestic violence and sexual assault cases – must naturally take a toll on an individual. Judges are also constantly aware of cultural sensitivities and other community dynamics that have a bearing on the delivery of justice in Nunavut.

Third, the judges of the NCJ have a developmental responsibility not normally associated with the judiciary in other jurisdictions. For example, the family mediation program now operating in Iqaluit and elsewhere was developed by the judges in consultation with community members, and receives ongoing guidance from the judges. Similarly, the establishment and maintenance of Elders and youth panels in the communities is a judicial responsibility. The Nunavut judges engage in community educational activities, such as the law information program for high school students. They are also in regular communication with JPs who telephone from their communities with questions on legal process.

In summary, it is clear judges' workloads are substantial and the attendant stresses high. This is confirmed by the substantive information and the unanimous view of key informants working in the justice system and by community residents. It is impressive, therefore, that the Court continues to improve year by year and appears to increasingly meet the needs of Nunavummiut. However, as Nunavut's population grows (and its youth population increases proportionately), there will be increasingly greater demands on the justice system. Moreover, as the Court's success in areas such as family law attracts more clients to the system, the demands will grow further. There appears to be little doubt that a fourth judge is required now, and that a fifth judge may be needed in the future.

6.2.5. Staff Workloads

Workloads for Court staff are substantial. In the past this has been problematic in that it has sometimes affected the completeness of the case information that was required by the Court for trials or civil hearings. The situation has improved to the point where information gaps rarely occur. However, ongoing training and mentoring is required to ensure that staff members can work effectively.

The Court currently has seven Juridical Officers plus a supervisor. Senior management in Court Services indicates that this number should be adequate to cover juridical responsibilities (e.g., Court Clerks) for the foreseeable future. Similarly, senior management confirms the Civil Registry is adequately staffed at present. The Civil Registry comprises one Civil Registrar, three Deputy Registrars and one Deputy Registrar/Interpreter.

Staff turnover can have an impact, however, and even one individual leaving is likely to create problems in the daily operation of the Court. The staff member responsible for the Court's travel arrangements provides a case in point. Currently, one individual has this responsibility, a substantial job due to the frequency of circuits, the number of Court personnel traveling, and the challenges inherent in northern travel. Key informants indicated Court Services urgently need to hire an additional staff person to be trained for work on travel arrangements. A second staff member dedicated to travel would make the workload more reasonable and would provide continuity in the event of one individual's absence.

The Sheriff's Office continues to be understaffed, even though it now has one Sheriff and two Deputy Sheriffs. The new Courthouse requires additional monitoring by sheriffs with regard to public access. Sheriffs are also being asked to provide security in Court, a task for which they are not adequately prepared in terms of time or expertise.[45] In addition, sheriffs' responsibilities outside the Courthouse (e.g., property seizures) are increasing as Nunavut grows. While the NCJ contracts with local agents in the communities outside Iqaluit to act as bailiffs for some of this work, it appears that this has not been effective to date. The primary problem is the lack of experience of potential agents. Training will be required in order for the process to work effectively. In the meantime, the Sheriff or Deputy Sheriffs (who are also new to the job and need training) are required to travel from Iqaluit to communities for bailiff duties on matters such as property seizures. The Sheriff or a Deputy Sheriff must also travel to communities with the Court party for jury trials to provide security and logistical support. These travel requirements represent a substantial investment of time and funds for the Court.

6.3. Implementation of an NCJ Information Management Strategy

6.3.1. Practitioners' Needs

From the lawyers' perspective, there is a strong sense the information management capacity of the Court has improved dramatically since 1999. But while the system is seen to be basically sufficient, there is continuing room for improvement. Certain points were raised with some consistency by key informants working in the justice system. (Community residents did not have views on the matter.)

Currently, an overlap in information management is perceived between the Court, RCMP, Crown and legal aid systems. Practitioners wish to see the development of systems with common reference numbers to improve tracking, and eventually to allow data to be more effectively shared between these agencies where appropriate.

Lawyers also want to see the Court implement an e-filing capability that they can use to access documents from communities while on circuit and when counsel are appearing by telephone. Because Court staff cannot access documents remotely, there is a considerable burden on lawyers to determine the practical filing deadline on a case-by-case basis and often, to refax documents to the community where the Court is in at the time. The current situation creates a substantial amount of time-consuming work for counsel, especially in light of the general shortage of support staff in the North.

Some judges have developed standard language and forms for use in conditional sentence orders. Key informant lawyers welcome this effort. There has also been discussion regarding the development of standard language in family law orders. These steps towards auto-orders have some potential to speed up production of orders and decrease errors.

6.3.2. File Management

The Court's criminal files are maintained in computerized format since January 2001. Criminal files prior to that date are difficult to track because they are filed according to conviction date. Files from January 2001 onward are filed from the date of the start of the case for the Court (new information sworn). There are few youth criminal files in view of the consistent application of alternative measures for youth.

As noted earlier in this report, the NCJ does not operate a case management system, which would track cases – with dates – in a single file through to completion of the justice process. Therefore, "completion" of an NCJ file occurs when a case is dispensed by the Court, not necessarily when follow-up measures such as probation are completed.

Civil files (including family) are computerized from January 2003, while files prior to that date are kept in manual format. Family case files are included in the civil file management system in the Court office. Family files are defined according to the statutes relating to family matters. The relevant statutes are the Divorce Act, the Family Law Act, the Children's Law Act, the Maintenance Enforcement Act, and the Child and Family Services Act. According to Court Services data, approximately 40 percent of the Court's family law caseload concerns child welfare matters.

Efforts to computerize NCJ files in the criminal, civil and family areas are ongoing. A full-time programmer has been working in the Court office for an extended period and has made significant progress in designing the systems and entering the data. Informants in the Court Services Division advise that the systems work well. However, their use is not intuitive and training is required in order for staff members to access the system effectively. This is a challenge in view of the workload demands already facing staff.

Manual files for years prior to the current year are stored under the supervision of the Records Management Division of the Nunavut Department of Community and Government Services. The storage facility is located on the outskirts of Iqaluit in a building which is substandard for this purpose. While the staff at the facility attempt to maintain secure access to the files, it is unlikely that security would meet federal or provincial standards. Similarly, the structure itself appears to leave contents susceptible to fire and water damage. While records management staff do their best with the resources available, informants say that funding shortages have prevented the construction of a new facility by the Government of Nunavut. The NCJ should be concerned about the storage of its case files once they leave the Court building.

6.3.3. Effectiveness and Efficiency of the Court Office

In general, lawyers and judges were extremely positive about the way the Court office operates. A few commented on the high calibre of the staff in light of the fact the Court Services Division is the Government of Nunavut Division with the highest levels of Inuit employment across the Government of Nunavut. Those who have been working since before 1999 commented on the dramatic improvement in the skills and helpfulness of the staff since the transition to the unified Court.

Although overall feedback was very positive, there were some concerns expressed by key informants regarding the effectiveness of the Court. High staff turnover in Court Services, as is typical throughout the Government of Nunavut, means that new staff members are constantly being trained and mentored. It is acknowledged that this is certainly not the fault of staff, but it leads to some concern regarding workloads for Court Services management and overall effectiveness in the Court office. There is also a clear perception among key informants that staff members have unrealistically high workloads and a very heavy burden of travel and associated logistics.

Civil counsel pointed to some lack of consistency with the filing of documents, particularly burdensome for those who practice at a distance where fax filing adds an additional layer of complexity to proceedings. There are occasional problems getting file-stamped copies of orders; similarly, there are frequent problems with Crown getting copies of orders. Criminal counsel pointed to the need for dockets to be ready earlier (though considerable improvements were noted, particularly sending electronic dockets in advance). Others commented that written orders do not always accurately reflect the judges' oral direction, requiring higher than normal levels of proofreading – though those informants felt increased use of standard forms (e.g., for conditional sentence orders) had reduced this problem and that the development of more forms in the database could further improve this situation. Errors on dockets – ranging from typographical to inclusion of a child victim names – were a concern for some lawyers. Transmission of documents from communities to Iqaluit may require better tracking mechanisms. One informant felt there was a need for a stronger basic understanding of the justice system as part of the training process; another commented that sometimes it feels like staff do not understand the legal consequences of different procedural decisions, so will not understand whether or not a particular formality is important. Some informants expressed the view that a lack of general legal knowledge on the part of staff may make it more difficult for litigants without representation.

Those points being made, key informants working in the justice system are generally very appreciative of the consistently good work by management and staff in the Court Services Division. Again, practitioners who have been working in Nunavut for several years tend to be impressed by the continuing progress being made by staff at the Courthouse.

6.4. Summary: Court Management and Operations

The operational structure of the NCJ comprises the Court Services Division, which is part of the Nunavut Department of Justice, and the NCJ administration, which is answerable to the senior judge. The former is largely responsible for the ongoing operations of the Court, while the latter primarily meets the needs of the judges.

There are three resident judges in Nunavut. There was unanimous agreement among key informants and community respondents that it is essential a fourth judge be appointed. A number of informants believed that eventually two additional judges are needed. Several factors contribute to this view, including the substantial and steadily increasing caseloads in all areas of the law, the demands of circuit Court, the stresses associated with travel in the North, and the developmental responsibilities of Nunavut judges.

Staff workloads at the Court are also substantial. While some areas in Court Services are currently staffed to acceptable levels, others are not; for example, the Sheriff's Office. As well, the staff member responsible for travel arrangements of the Court should be staffed by an additional person in order to ensure continuity and effectiveness of these services.

Lawyers are generally satisfied with the level of service provided by Court Services, although some have had experience with inaccuracies in documentation, the timeliness of dockets, and accuracy of written orders. Overall, however, lawyers are pleased with the service provided, and those who have been in Iqaluit for a long period are impressed by the improvements made by staff and management.

Interpretation services are an important aspect of Court in Nunavut. Although interpretation in the Court is considered to have improved to the point where it is now very effective, some counsel continue to have concerns about the quality of interpretation, particularly in the western Arctic where dialect can present a problem for interpreters traveling with the Court. The annual eight-week Legal Interpreting course sponsored by the NCJ is attempting to address such issues. Community members are generally satisfied with the interpretation services provided by the Court.

With respect to the Court's information management systems, there has been vast improvement since 1999. Practitioners would like to see the development of a system with common reference numbers between the Court, the RCMP, Crown and legal aid systems. As well, lawyers would like to be able to e-file capability that would allow counsel to send documents electronically to the Court while it is on circuit. This would be especially useful when counsel are appearing by telephone. Judges are developing standard language and forms for various types of orders. One judge, for example, is currently using a standard form for conditional sentence orders.

The computerization of case files is ongoing. Currently criminal files are computerized from January 2001 and civil files, including family, from January 2003. Manual files prior to the current year are presently stored in a substandard facility with questionable security.

The new Courthouse in Iqaluit is a dedicated facility that should improve working conditions, public access and security. Facilities in the communities remain very poor, although most practitioners and community members recognize that these facilities are the best that the communities have to offer. Of real concern is the substandard quality of telephone service in most communities. Problems with telephones lead to frustrations for judges, counsel and clients when cases involve participation by parties in different communities.