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The justice system in Nunavut

Somewhere between tales of judges bunking with strangers and pushing airplanes out of the mud it becomes clear Nunavut's court system works a little differently.

In the provinces, new courthouses are under construction and justice officials have embarked on electronic filing projects.

In Nunavut, the community centres that serve as temporary courthouses don't always have toilets and Internet service is often non-existent.

Based in the capital, Iqaluit, the court system serves 24 communities across the vast 1.9-million square kilometre territory. So convening sessions of court requires packing up a twin-engine plane with a judge, a court clerk, an interpreter, their equipment and everything from first aid kits to extension cords.

When the court party arrives in town the weather might be cold, but the sleeping conditions can get quite cosy. There's often only one small hotel in each community and reservations guarantee a bed, not necessarily a room.

"The hotels often will put other people in the other bed, so our judges have to ensure they take pyjamas because there's no guarantee it will in fact be someone of the same sex," said Nunavut Court Senior Justice Robert Kilpatrick.

"I've slept with all sorts of people in my room."

The six judges of the Nunavut Court of Justice take turns travelling on the circuits, hearing everything from small claims cases right up to murder trials. They're the only judges in Canada to hear all three levels of court.

The flights often pose problems for the court system. To get to some regions court officials must fly from Iqaluit to either Quebec or Yellowknife. Some of the trips can take two days one way.

"Going to court in the North is truly an adventure and you never know what to expect," Kilpatrick said in an interview.

The lack of hotel space means juries can't be sequestered in Nunavut. So judges must get juries to begin their deliberations early in the day. If they're asked to deliberate past 10 p.m. the conviction can be overturned on appeal, Kilpatrick said. Big trials in which multi-day deliberations are anticipated must be moved to larger communities.

Court is held in schools, community halls or whatever building is available. Sometimes there are no working toilets. Sometimes there's no heat so everyone wears parkas and it's too cold for court reporting equipment or even pens to work properly.

Lawyers try to arrive a day or two ahead of the judge, accused people enter their pleas on the first appearance and the preliminary hearing or even the trial often takes place in the next court session.

But most of the issues the justice system in Nunavut is grappling with go much deeper than scant hotel rooms and scheduling snafus.

The territory, with a mostly Inuit population of about 33,000, experiences more violent crime per capita than anywhere else in Canada. Suicide rates, particularly for teenagers, are far higher than in southern parts of the country.

The rate of sexual assault is 10 times the national average. The rate of homicides is 11 times the national average. The rate of spousal violence is 12 times the national average.

The Canadian Press


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