SURREY â€” The province announced a $24.3 million expansion to Surrey provincial court today that will include three new courtrooms and two hearing rooms that are hoped to reduce backlogs.
"There’s no question this is an extremely busy courthouse," Attorney General and Minister of Justice Suzanne Anton observed at a press conference Thursday outside its front doors. "The expansion will be significant."
"There’s no question we will need additional staff," she added. "There will be additional judges needed, additional Crown needed, support staff."
Surrey’s courthouse, opened in 1991 when the city’s population was 60 per cent of what it is today, and has the largest criminal caseload in the province. More than 15,000 provincial cases were initiated in the 2013-2014 fiscal year, and there were more than 92,000 provincial court appearances.
Roughly eighty per cent of new cases opened in Surrey during that time were criminal court cases.
Expansion was a top priority in a February, 2014 report titled Lower Fraser Valley Regional Plan: Court Capacity Expansion Project. While it called for five new provincial courtrooms in Surrey and an update of the facility’s technological infrastructure to be completed by 2018, the province has only committed to three.
Anton made the expansion commitment at Surrey’s courthouse Thursday, joined by Minister of Technology, Innovation and Citizens’ Services Amrik Virk and Mayor Linda Hepner.
"Government recognizes the pressures on courthouse facilities resulting from the rapid growth of the lower Fraser Valley’s populations," Anton said. "These improvements will help ensure timely access to justice for British Columbians by alleviating delays caused by caseload backlogs."
Construction is set to begin early next year, and is expected to be complete by late 2017. "My job is to build this on time and on budget," Virk said. "We listened, we heard what you want as a community."
Meanwhile, Anton also announced a recommendation of the Surrey Criminal Justice Task Force on Thursday.
The task force was created by former mayor Dianne Watts and Anton in February 2014 to explore the city’s "unique" justice needs and challenges.
The recommendation, which the province is supporting, is to create an Integrated Services Network (ISN) to be led by the City of Surrey zeroing in on domestic violence, mental health and substance misuse, and prolific offenders.
As a result, there would be a single location for offices of justice, health and social services involved in the co-delivery of programs and services.
Anton said the network utilizes a "grassroots, made-in-Surrey solution to the specific issues the community faces."
The ISN is hoped to ease access for clients with complex needs by providing a single location, making it easier for front-line workers to reach clients who are traditionally hard to reach, supporting the "no wrong door" approach.
Mayor Hepner said the ISN in Surrey would help address the root causes of crime.
"This means that cases involving mental health, health and family matters, will be referred to timely support services. Ultimately, this will allow for a greater chance of success in reintegrating offenders into positive roles in society," she said.
"What can I say? I really want to commend the provincial government for their foresight," Hepner said. "This is going to mean a big difference in our community."
Surrey RCMP Chief Supt. Bill Fordy said the network is a "positive step forward" and would have "positive impacts on public safety and reduce crime in our city."
While the task force’s report identified the former city hall building as a possible site for the ISN, it was mentioned that the intended client base doesn’t typically reside in that neighbourhood. Instead, the report noted clients tend to live in the Whalley and Guildford area, and perhaps those areas would be more appropriate.
Absent from Thursday’s announcement, however, was the installment of a community court, a concept that has been bandied about in Surrey for many years.
"It was me that often used the language of ‘community court,’" Hepner said, "and the task force with the integration of network services is exactly what in my mind we were trying to wrap our heads around is how are we getting those services more quickly. So I correlate this to a community services positive response and the expansion to the courthouse certainly seems to me to be approaching exactly what we were hoping for and now as we move into discussions around specialized court, I think we’ve got a win-win here all the way around."
Harry Bains, NDP MLA for Surrey-Newton, found Thursday’s announcement underwhelming.
"They talked about five (courtrooms) some time ago and now they’re talking about three, so I think it is a step back from what they originally announced," Bains said.
"But to me and to the people of Surrey, I think the more important part was, if there was an announcement to deal with the crime in Surrey.
"Yes, this will expand the capacity to the courthouse, help the Crown prosecutors to proceed with their cases, but there’s nothing in this announcement that will deal with the crime in Surrey," Bains lamented. "I mean people right now don’t feel safe in their own homes, they don’t feel safe walking around their neighbourhoods."
As for the criminal themselves?
"The criminals are running rampant. There is no one that they’re afraid of," Bains said.
"This government is all about big announcements and lofty goals, but when it comes to the resources at the ground level, they’re missing in action."