Judge makes case for space

Chief Justice Warren Winkler urges the province to replace the courthouse at 361 University Ave., in a speech to the courts Sept. 14, 2009.
New courthouse needed to prevent backlog, chief justice argues
Sep 15, 2009 04:30 AM
Tracey Tyler
Legal Affairs Reporter

It's been hailed as an important example of late 20th-century design and was once the largest building of its kind in Ontario.

But, 42 years on, it's time for a new courthouse to replace the limestone landmark at 361 University Ave. in Toronto, says Ontario Chief Justice Warren Winkler.

In a speech yesterday to mark the opening of the courts for 2009-10, Winkler urged the province to give "priority" to infrastructure projects that will respond to Ontario's "substantial" criminal caseloads.

Toronto especially needs more criminal courtrooms to avoid a future bottleneck in trials, he said.

"It takes years to build a courthouse," Winkler told the Star in an email, sent by way of his executive legal officer. "A clear commitment to erect a new Toronto Superior Court courthouse at this stage is what is required to avoid problems in the future."

Toronto defence lawyer Joseph Neuberger agrees. One of the problems, said Neuberger, is that large-scale prosecutions, a mainstay in the Superior Court of Justice over the past five years, have consumed vast amounts of court resources. They include a case that ended in July with three gang members convicted of a fatal 2004 drive-by shooting.

As a result, scheduling a two-to-three-week jury trial has become "somewhat challenging," said Neuberger, a board member of the Toronto Lawyers' Association and a participant in recent meetings aimed at finding ways to have cases resolved within a reasonable time.

Add to that the inefficiencies of having at least five court facilities scattered across the city and the case for consolidating operations in a new Toronto building makes sense, Neuberger argues. In addition to the courthouse at 361 University Ave., they include Old City Hall, College Park and courthouses in Scarborough and Etobicoke.

"I think it's time for Toronto to at least condense Old City Hall, College Park and the Superior Court (at 361 University)," he said.

Transporting prisoners would be far less complicated if they were dropped off and picked up at one courthouse and lawyers wouldn't have to worry about figuring out where a client's bail hearing is taking place, he added, and a new building could also be equipped to make the most of technology.

Neuberger pointed to the Brampton courthouse, Hamilton's John Sopinka Courthouse and the "aesthetically beautiful" courthouse in Pembroke as examples of new buildings that have done a good job of combining provincial and superior court operations.

Court operations could remain based at 361 University and the province could build "up," Neuberger said.

But that process could be susceptible to complications if historical and architectural conservationists take an interest in the building. The building, which was erected in 1966, is on the City of Toronto inventory of heritage properties.

The courthouse is a significant example of late 20th-century "modern design," in which buildings were constructed to reflect the size and prominence of both the land they were sitting on, as well as what they were used for.

The architect, Ronald Dick, said the building's design was meant to convey dignity and convenience.

It was among the last provincial buildings to be made of Queenston limestone.