Chief judge, union call for action amid northern Manitoba court delays

The union that represents Manitoba government employees says it predicted there would be delays administering justice in remote communities before the province started contracting a private company to fly in court parties.

In a 2018 report, the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union (MGEU) warned that contracting a private carrier to replace the once government-run air services organization would make it more difficult for the government to monitor and enforce the quality of service.

“We’ve seen already in four short years that not having a reliable public air service means that critical public services don’t happen on time,” Jean-Guy Bourgeois, the director of internal operations at the MGEU, said in an interview on Tuesday.

Now some lawyers, and even Manitoba’s chief judge, are calling attention to delayed justice caused by suddenly cancelled flights.

CBC News has spoken to four practising lawyers who represent clients in the 22 fly-in communities during circuit court proceedings who all point to a worsening problem of cancelled flights which are meant to transport court parties— including the defence lawyer, Crown attorney, judge, clerk, sheriffs and other court workers.

Chief Judge Margaret Wiebe also acknowledges there’s a problem.

“We have accused people who are in custody who are not having their matters heard in a timely way and we have complainants who are ready to testify who don’t have that opportunity because we can’t get into the community,” she said in an interview on Monday.

“We want to bring access to justice to the community. We want them to have the same privilege and ability to have their matters heard as someone who doesn’t need to take a plane to get there.”

Union says hearing delays worsening

The MGEU says things have only gotten worse since Manitoba Government Air Service, which also oversaw air ambulances and forest fire suppression efforts, was privatized.

The 2018 report cautioned that private carriers that could take over these services are often the hit hardest by pilot shortages since their pilots are typically newer, have less experience and move on to bigger, preferred employers when they accumulate enough hours, the report said.

Pilots at Manitoba Government Air Service saw it as an “employer of choice,” and said there was low turnover, predictable work hours and many opportunities for advanced training, the report stated.

In 2019, though, the province announced it was awarding the contract to Exchange Income Corporation to provide services for general transportation under air services, including air travel for judges, sheriffs and accused people.

Ron Schuler, infrastructure minister at the time, had said in a news release that the move was being made to save costs and prevent delays, saying that a single court delay in the north costs on average $10,000, and extended delays can lead to cases being thrown out of court.

A provincial government spokesperson wouldn’t speak to the number of delays taking place in the circuit court system, or how much those delays are costing, but chalked the problem up to an industry-wide pilot shortage.

Bourgeois said smaller carriers feel the shortage more acutely because pilots want to work for bigger companies.

“Pilots go there, they work for a short time and then they move on so that they’re the ones who have problems maintaining service levels when there is a global pilot shortage,” he said.

That wasn’t the case, however, for pilots working for the Manitoba Government Air Service.

Exchange Income Corporation said in an email this weekend it’s trying to hire more staff after some of their pilots went to work for the big carriers, a company spokesperson said.

Wiebe says the government must do more to ensure court proceedings occur on time.

“Government has to go out and contract with another carrier to get more pilots available to us. We’re an essential service, so I think that’s what has to happen,” Wiebe said.

The provincial spokesperson says those efforts are ongoing.

“The Manitoba government continues to work collaboratively with industry partners to best support the province’s judicial system and ensure access to justice for Manitobans involved in the criminal justice system,” the spokesperson said in an email on Wednesday afternoon.