The Nunavut Court of Justice: An Example of Challenges and Alternatives for Communities and for the Administration of Justice

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This article addresses challenges and possible responses regarding the administration of justice in Nunavut. The focus is on the Nunavut Court of Justice and three closely related components of the justice system that are essential for the court to operate as envisioned and to achieve its original goals. The essential components are legal aid, justices of the peace, and Inuit court workers. The paper first addresses the creation of the Nunavut Court of Justice and its original objectives and intended impacts. Inherent challenges in administering justice in the far North are examined, including a fast-growing population, high crime rates, and other contextual factors. Delays and lengthy case processing times are presented as two indicators symptomatic of problems facing the court. I argue that the development of the three essential components noted above was intended to address these problems, but progress is stalled, preventing the court from fully reaching its goals. A number of factors are examined as possible explanations for the dilemma. The paper concludes with a preliminary discussion of a movement toward community-based approaches that might help resolve the challenges inherent in the administration of justice in Nunavut. (1)

The Creation of Nunavut and the Nunavut Court of Justice

Nunavut was established on 1 April 1999 at the time of the division of the Northwest Territories into two distinct territorial jurisdictions. As part of the formal government-building process, the Nunavut Act created the Nunavut Court of Justice (NCJ) as a unified court system in order to provide an efficient and accessible court structure capable of responding to the unique needs of the territory, while at the same time maintaining substantive and procedural rights equivalent to those enjoyed elsewhere in Canada. Nunavut is the only Canadian jurisdiction with a unified or single-level criminal court.

Various legal authorities enabled the Nunavut Court of Justice (Department of Justice, Canada 2007: 7). At the federal level, the Act to amend the Nunavut Act with respect to the Nunavut Court of Justice shifted authority from the courts of the Northwest Territories to that of Nunavut and addressed certain operational responsibilities of the new court. (2) In addition, the Criminal Code of Canada was amended to include the powers and functions of the Nunavut court. At the territorial level, the Nunavut Judicial System Implementation Act, which included a new Judicature Act and a new Justices of the Peace Act, laid out the court's structure and specified certain rules of law and procedure for cases heard in Nunavut.

In terms of structure, Nunavut's single-level criminal court differs from courts in the provinces and the other territories primarily in that the normally distinct functions of the superior court and the provincial or territorial court are combined in a single superior court. Justices of the Nunavut court are, therefore, federally appointed. Nunavut's court of appeal comprises a panel of judges drawn from the Nunavut court and the courts of appeal of other jurisdictions who meet as required. (3)

Goals and intended impacts of the court

Key informants in the territorial and federal Departments of Justice who were involved in setting up the new court, as well as members of the Nunavut judiciary, agree that the overall goals of the Nunavut court in 1999 were the following: (a) to provide substantive and procedural rights equivalent to those enjoyed elsewhere in Canada; (b) to provide court-based justice services in a fair and inclusive manner; and (c) to provide an efficient and accessible court structure capable of responding to the unique needs of Nunavut.

The major intended impacts of the new court were seen as follows: to reduce delays and case processing times throughout Nunavut; to provide an effective justice of the peace function in all communities; to engage the communities in the court process through the use of elders' panels and youth panels at sentencing; to increase understanding of the justice system and court operations by Nunavummiut; (4) to establish culturally appropriate court processes, including effective court interpretation services in all communities; to apply a range of culturally appropriate and community-oriented sentencing alternatives; and to increase access to civil and family law throughout Nunavut (Department of Justice, Canada 2007). …