Turner Valley court in session
Justice: New courthouse expected to relieve caseload in Okotoks
By: Darlene Casten
| Posted: Tuesday, May 06, 2014 06:00 am
It was an unusually upbeat atmosphere at a foothills courthouse Tuesday.
The Turner Valley courthouse opened this week and there were a lot of smiling faces as lawyers and judges filed in to deal with the 10 cases on the docket.
The Turner Valley courthouse was re-opened after years of looking at how to alleviate pressure at the Okotoks courtroom. It is also expected to better serve residents living in the Turner Valley RCMP detachment, which stretches from the Eden Valley Reserve north to Black Diamond and east to the border of Bragg Creek.
Judge Bob Wilkins was instrumental in getting Turner Valley court re-opened.
He presided over the opening day at the new courthouse.
“This is another step to making justice accessible,” Wilkins said before hearing the first case.
Wilkins was the associate chief justice for the Calgary region the caseload at the Okotoks courthouse was seeing a surge around four years ago.
In 2013/14 Okotoks court saw 9,760 criminal cases. At its peak the courthouse saw more than 12,000 criminal cases. That does not include traffic tickets, which are dealt with on Mondays.
“The growth in in places like Okotoks and Calgary are huge,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins said out of the 11 busy circuit courts in the Calgary area, attention was turned to Okotoks because it was sitting four days a week and was setting trial dates more than a year away. To deal with the growing criminal cases, the court began sitting five days days per week, allowing for two days of trial and two days for regular court appearances and a day of traffic court. When a case management office (CMO) was introduced in Calgary, allowing accused people making initial appearances or their lawyers to simply walk up to the counter and set a new court date at the counter, Okotoks soon followed suit.
However trials were still being set more than a year away, a concern for lawyers and judges, who don’t like to see witnesses trying to recall information sometimes from two to three years earlier.
Lengthy trials often couldn’t be accommodated in Okotoks and are moved to Calgary Provincial Court, which is not an ideal said Wilkins.
“It is the philosophy that when a crime is committed (the court proceedings) should be held in the community it occurred in,” he said, adding that moving cases from circuits to Calgary, where there are 16 courtrooms running daily, can back up the city courthouse.
Approximately three years ago the provincial government began looking at re-opening a courthouse in the area. In 2012 the province reacquired the former Turner Valley courthouse.
Wilkins said it was decided to shut down the Banff courthouse, which did not have a high volume of cases and presented safety concerns because it was located in the upper level of a downtown mall. The move freed up circuit judges and court clerks to man the Turner Valley courthouse.
Crown prosecutor Mac Vomberg was assigned to the Okotoks courthouse from 2008 to early 2011 and sat on a committee that included RCMP, representatives from the judiciary and clerks offices and sheriffs.
He said after years of looking for ways to address the trial scheduling issues, he is happy to see the Turner Valley courthouse open.
“It’s been an ongoing process,” Vomberg said. “Since this has started the dynamics have changed again…Its never been a static situation.”
He said he believes all of the changes have already helped the situation in Okotoks and said it will continue to improve.
With the opening of the Turner Valley courthouse, Okotoks will operate four days a week. Tuesdays will no longer be a docket day, but could be used to accommodate long trials, said an Alberta Justice spokesperson Josh Stewart.
The Turner Valley courthouse will be open for criminal court every Tuesday and every second and fourth Wednesday. Traffic court will be held on every first and third Wednesday.
On its first day there were 10 court cases and a trial was set for August, with a wide-open schedule in the coming weeks, however that is expected to change.
Crown prosecutor Dane Rolfe said the number of cases will increase in the coming weeks as more criminal charges laid by the Turner Valley RCMP are set for the new courthouse or are transferred from the Okotoks court.
The Turner Valley court was the second former courthouse in the foothills considered by the Province for re-opening. They also looked at re-opening the High River courthouse, but it was fully occupied by other government agencies.
Both the High River and Turner Valley courthouses were closed down by the Klein government in 1996. The Turner Valley courthouse was sold to the municipality for $196,00, which they used as their town hall.
Two years ago the Province bought the building and an adjacent lot back from the Town of Turner Valley in 2012 for $850,000. A holding cell and criminal dock were put in and renovations were done to the interior of the building.
Defence lawyer Bev Broadhurst was one lawyer at the courthouse opening Tuesday that had been at the former courthouse. Now working out of her Turner Valley law office, she was pleased to see the old courthouse resurrected.
“I’m happy,” Broadhurst said. “It’s going to be a real benefit for people out here.”