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No answers over staffing shortages, closures amid 'chaos' at Toronto courthouse

The Ministry of the Attorney General is staying quiet on what’s causing an ongoing staffing crisis and near-daily closures at Toronto’s newest courthouse – an issue the union says is pushing dramatic workloads onto public employees and has thrown the system into “chaos.”

The facility, located at 10 Armory Street, has been plagued by staffing shortages since opening in February this year. The court took over criminal proceedings from six Ontario Court of Justice courthouses in Toronto, North York, and Scarborough.

Courtroom closures have become a near-daily occurrence and, on some days, have surged into the double digits, according to Justice Peter Fraser, who outlined the circumstances while ruling on an Ontario Court of Justice case released last week.

The case, involving the sexual assault of a minor, was the latest to be thrown out at the downtown courthouse due to staffing crunch. The week before that, an impaired driving charge was tossed for the same reason. Within the ruling, Fraser wrote that the Ministry of the Attorney General has yet to provide reasoning for the staffing issues.

"I gave the Crown ample opportunity to provide evidence explaining why the state had failed to staff the courts to the extent seen here,” Fraser wrote.

“The Crown declined.”

The Ontario Court of Justice - Toronto can be seen above.

Despite repeated requests, the ministry, which oversees the provincial judicial system, has not responded to CTV News Toronto’s questions on what’s fuelling the shortage.

The ministry has said it “continues to recruit and onboard new staff to support courthouses in Toronto, including the Ontario Court of Justice [in] Toronto.”

“We are fully committed to doing more to ensure victims have access to justice and offenders are held accountable and are working to further address these issues,” a spokesperson for the ministry said in a written statement.

Meanwhile, the union that represents a number of employees at the courts told CTV News Toronto that the problem can be found in “low wages and poor working conditions, [..] causing a recruitment and retention crisis across service.”

As a result, Fraser said “no justifications” have been provided for the disruptions caused over the past several months.

According to OPSEU/SEFPO Local 526 president Chris Draxl, it’s gotten so bad that he suspects at least 25 per cent of the Armoury courts that should be operating must close due to a lack of staff on average each day.

Those numbers echo Fraser’s findings, pulled from daily court closures and used as evidence in his decision. According to his ruling, between March 31 and July 6, a total of 343 courtroom closures were counted.

To make up for the backlog, staff often arrive early in the morning, stay until 8 or 10 p.m., and then come back again the next day, the union said.

“[Our] members keep the courts running, and do an amazing job - but they are extremely stressed and overworked,” Draxl wrote.

“Any new positions that have been created barely scratch the surface of the staffing needs, as many experienced court staff were lost during the amalgamation.”

The amalgamation that saw the closure of six other in the Toronto area have "thrown the court system into chaos," according to Draxl. While it is “unfortunate” that it took the dismissal of at least two criminal cases to bring attention to their claims, the union said it is relieved that its concerns “are finally being heard.”

Now, the Ford government needs to address the problem – and urgently, Draxl said.

“The Ministry can say that they are attempting to address these issues through ongoing recruitment and onboarding initiatives, but this does not reflect the crisis of short staffing, and burnout that our members are experiencing on the ground," the union president said.

In an effort to alleviate court backlogs experienced all across Ontario, the Ford government has put in place two strategies – the Criminal Court Backlog Reduction Strategy, in which $72M was spent to support the hiring of new court staff, and the COVID-19 Recovery Directive, which prioritizes the prosecution of serious offences to reduce the likelihood that egregious case prosecutions would be dismissed for delay. Top Stories

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