One of the most sobering experiences of my life took place in a bail hearing. As a court reporter, I work in federal and provincial courtrooms for the Ontario Court of Justice. Earlier this semester, during a regular workday in an Old City Hall provincial bail hearing, a special matter fell into the court’s hands.
Everything was routine; an accused person showed up on Zoom, the crown lawyer and duty counsel drafted a joint bail submission for the gentleman, and the presiding justice of the peace scrutinized the bail terms. On this front, the judge struck off a bail condition requiring the accused to report in person to Old City Hall.
Initially, I felt confused — I couldn’t reason why this made any difference. But as my brain fog cleared, I came to a sobering realization: $6.50 — the cost of one TTC round trip to and from the courthouse before the new fares were established on April 3 — can be the difference between a full stomach or skipping a meal to scrape up enough money for rent. $6.50 can be a bona fide financial barrier for accused persons on the extremes of financial vulnerability. $6.50 might be negligible to the economically privileged, but it can be profoundly significant for the underprivileged.
Fast forward a few weeks, and I was allowed to work in the newly-opened New Toronto Courthouse (NTC). Costing taxpayers $956.4 million, the NTC is the Ontario government’s brainchild of nine years. The downtown courthouse of 17 storeys and 63 courtrooms merges the bulk of criminal proceedings across Toronto, which will lead to the closure of six courts — including Old City Hall — in the GTA. Alongside standard courtrooms, the NTC also boasts specialized courtrooms for mental health, drug treatment, and Indigenous accused persons. In this sense, I believe the NTC is intended to be a ‘super courthouse’ that will centralize criminal case management and modernize Toronto’s justice system.
Unjust inaccessibility of the NTC
I felt like a child in Disneyland when I first entered the doors of the NTC. The high-rise was ultra-modern and luxurious, equipped with a sleek white interior and beautiful wood finishes. Even the usual crusty court reporter equipment was pristine, but my excitement quickly turned into revulsion. The NTC poses concerning and flagrant access to justice risks for the underprivileged.
My logic is twofold; the NTC represents both a financial and a time cost. At the baseline, the main implication of the super courthouse is that courts scattered across Toronto and its suburbs will be closed. Torontonians, in turn, will be forced to travel across the city to attend court downtown. Thus, accessibility issues will arise.
Imagine living in the Northern Finch area or east Scarborough. Accused persons will be forced to take a serpentine string of buses and subways to reach the NTC. Precious hours will be spent on transit and the subsequent income loss, paired with TTC costs, will be endured by Torontonians — not by the Ontario government.
These externalities are not limited to accused persons. They run the gamut of victims, witnesses, sureties, and court workers — all of whom are similarly forced to bear the financial and time costs of commuting across the city to attend court. In the end, significant barriers arise and access to justice is compromised.
As an aside, local Toronto courthouses have also served a secondary purpose to legal resolution; they are important hubs for communities and offer social services to offenders in the legal system. Closing down these courthouses means tearing up the fabric of Toronto communities and taking away communal services and opportunities.
Proponents of the NTC may argue that concerns are unwarranted because accused persons can simply attend court through Zoom video appearances. This argument, however, speaks from an ignorant point of privilege. Not everyone — especially those caught up in the legal system — has easy access to electronic devices to attend court virtually. Moreover, self-represented accused persons who appear in person generally receive more legal assistance than if they virtually appear over video. An accused person must have accessible means to a courthouse.
The NTC is built on material wealth and privilege
When I finished my workday at the NTC, I felt repulsed — I felt like something was grossly wrong. A modernization of the legal system and a cutting-edge centralized courthouse are exciting prospects for Toronto — and for me as a court worker. However, it’s crystal clear that the NTC was constructed from the perspective of privilege.
The material wealth that built up the ultra-modern building is a slap-in-the-face for the underprivileged. The externalities of the super courthouse are a barrier to access to justice. The closure of local courthouses takes away essential services for the underprivileged. Ultimately, the NTC is a gross materialization of privilege that overlooks the needs and problems of the underprivileged.
Standing atop the cliff of wealth and privilege, it’s easy to look down on those below the cliff, in the shadow of poverty and adversity. The Ontario government must climb down from this cliff — and it must confront and reconcile with its position of privilege. $6.50 may not feel significant to some, but to the underprivileged, it’s a world of difference.
James Jiang is a third-year political science specialist student at Trinity College.
Editor’s note (May 10): We’ve temporarily taken down this article because of a possible breach of privacy, in accordance with part 2di) and 2dii) of The Varsity’s Code of Journalistic Ethics. The issue is being reviewed by the editor, and the article will be restored with an additional note once the situation has been investigated.
Editor’s note (July 10): A previous version of this article contained a mention of an unnamed defendant in a court case. For privacy reasons, in accordance with sections 2di) and 2dii) of The Varsity’s Code of Journalistic Ethics, that mention has been removed, and the article has been restored on the website. The Varsity regrets this error.
This article also originally listed TTC fare costs that were out of date at the time of its publication; it has been updated to include the fact that fares have since changed.