A phone-in weekend bail court could be on the way for people arrested in northern Manitoba.
As part of a pilot project aimed at reducing longstanding delays in bail hearings in the province's northernmost court, Legal Aid Manitoba is looking for private criminal defence lawyers in Thompson to be on duty on Saturdays and Sundays for a pay rate of $260 per half day.
The request for proposals from private law firms was issued this week. It comes a month after a Manitoba Superior Court Judge ruled two Manitobans' rights were violated because they were forced to wait too long for their bail hearings. In his Nov. 14 decision, Court of Queen's Bench Justice Chris Martin heavily criticized systemic delays in the north, writing that the bail-court system in Thompson "should shock the conscience of any reasonable person."
The plan to have defence lawyers available on-call for weekend bail hearings was in the works for months before Justice Martin's decision, said Sam Raposo, deputy executive director of Legal Aid Manitoba.
Raposo said Legal Aid Manitoba isn't getting extra funding for the proposed pilot project, which follows a similar weekend bail program that has been running in Winnipeg since May 2018.
In Winnipeg, accused held at the Remand Centre appear in weekend bail court via a video link. There is no jail in Thompson and no video link is being proposed as part of the Thompson pilot project.
"I think that if it works the same way as weekend bail does here in Winnipeg, that it could enhance the services up there and it could result in people not being needlessly transported," from their home communities to Thompson, Raposo said.
"I think that if it works the same way as weekend bail does here in Winnipeg, that it could enhance the services up there and it could result in people not being needlessly transported." — Sam Raposo, deputy executive director of Legal Aid Manitoba
Currently, people arrested in remote communities in northern Manitoba can apply for bail over the phone from the police detachment within 24 hours after their arrest, but because there is no 24-7 Legal Aid duty counsel, many don't have a defence lawyer to represent them.
Those phone-in hearings with a judicial justice of the peace typically only provide the prosecution's position on whether the individual should be released from police custody.
Several lawyers who work in northern Manitoba previously told the Free Press most accused people opt to wait for a lawyer to help them with their bail hearing, which can't happen until they can appear in Thompson provincial court in person, in front of a judge.
It can take several days for people to be flown or driven to Thompson, the hub of northern Manitoba. When they get there, the court dockets are regularly overloaded and the court often runs out of time.
When people did apply for bail in Thompson, they were commonly released with the Crown attorney's consent, the Free Press found as part of prior coverage of the northern justice system.
"If we can come to consent releases before people are transported from their home communities into Thompson, then I think that's a win for everybody in the system," Raposo said.
Weekend bail court in Winnipeg has dealt with roughly 4,805 cases between June 1, 2018 and Oct. 20, 2019, according to statistics compiled by Legal Aid. In about 889 cases, people have been released by consent, while 273 cases were resolved and the remaining 3,643 cases were put over to a future court date.
Weekend court in Winnipeg doesn't deal with contested bail hearings, and the pilot project in Thompson isn't expected to, either. It's aimed at making the court dockets less busy at the start of the work week.
Asked about any commitments prosecutors have made to help run the Thompson pilot project, Manitoba Justice didn't immediately respond Thursday.
Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.