Former lawyers file human rights complaints, allege accessibility issues in Manitoba courts

Two former lawyers have filed human rights complaints against the province, saying Manitoba’s law courts are not fully accessible for people living with disabilities.

Mike Reimer and Peter Tonge left the profession in part because they said they faced ongoing challenges getting into and out of courts.

In a joint news release Tuesday, the two former lawyers said they have each filed a complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, alleging accessibility issues and “an attitude of indifference … within the Manitoba justice system” to correcting “historic and ongoing issues.” 

“While I was practising as a law student … in criminal law and then ultimately as a lawyer, I just was encountering more and more and more issues with respect to accessibility,” Reimer said in an interview with CBC News on Tuesday. He was called to the bar in June 2018 and left practice in December 2019.

Reimer uses a wheelchair, and says he faced challenges accessing courtrooms, washrooms and even getting into some rural courthouses.  

“I’ve had multiple judges apologize to me for how inaccessible the courtroom is that I was appearing in, because they can see … when you’re struggling to get around,” Reimer said.

“They can see that it’s really not an accessible environment.” 

That includes issues like doors without automatic opening switches, for example, he said.

Reimer said he had to adjourn a case in Emerson, Man., because the courthouse could only be accessed by stairs.

“It’s certainly discouraging, especially when it’s something that happens a lot more than it should,” he said.

He says he met with the judge overseeing the court to raise the issue and try to find a solution.

“I said I would be happy to have the sheriffs just, like, carry me in my wheelchair up the stairs so that I can get into the court, speak to my client’s matter and then call it done,” he said.

He says he was told the court couldn’t ask the sheriffs to do so, because it would be a potential liability for the Department of Justice.

Reimer said he was told he could take his client’s matter to another nearby circuit court location that was accessible to wheelchair users.

‘Makes me feel like I’m not wanted’

Tonge, who was born with cerebral palsy and also uses a wheelchair, says he ran into similar barriers. 

“It makes me feel like I’m not wanted there … that I shouldn’t be bothering them,” said Tonge, who stopped practising in December 2018.

He said he was once invited to take part in a meeting to help design renovations for the Winnipeg court centre, but felt his concerns and suggestions were not heard. 

“I was always under the impression that the system was happy to have us there as long as they didn’t have to change anything to have us,” he said. 

Reimer said he too offered his assistance and suggestions for making the courts easier to navigate as a person with disabilities, but also felt he was not heard.

“It’s a difficult issue to address, but that’s why I’m hoping that through this complaint, we can come up with some sort of strategy to make the courts more accessible,” said Reimer.

In an emailed statement, a Manitoba Justice spokesperson said work is ongoing across the province to improve existing spaces and address any deficiencies when they arise.  

The province said upgrades at the provincial law courts building in Winnipeg will include installing automatic openers for all courtroom doors, new gallery seating, modifying witness boxes, and installing an automated lift to the judge’s box in one courtroom.

Changes to washrooms and the building’s exterior are also either complete or underway, the province said, as are renovations to the Thompson and Dauphin courthouses.

Attitudes are ‘the larger obstacle’

But Tonge says the challenges aren’t just physical — attitudes need to change as well. More needs to be done, he says, to help make people with disabilities feel like they belong in the legal profession.

“Doing nothing to try and keep them there and support them … I think, for the system, that’s going to be the larger obstacle,” he said.

Reimer and Tonge’s complaints will now be assigned to a Manitoba Human Rights Commission investigator to determine whether any human rights were breached, and if any changes need to be made.

Both men said they hope to see changes that will not only benefit those in the legal profession, but anyone involved in the justice system. 

Reimer says his ultimate goal is to see the legal system “be essentially forced to become more accessible, and then have some sort of method to actually enforce whatever commitment that they are forced to make.”