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Courthouse coming back?

Major announcement planned for Monday Sylvie Paillard spaillard@squamishchief.

Major announcement planned for Monday

Sylvie Paillard

[email protected]

Will Squamish soon have a courthouse again?

Unconfirmed reports state that Attorney General Wally Oppal has given a nod to a joint proposal from Squamish and Whistler that would see monies currently spent sending RCMP to court in North Vancouver diverted instead to bringing a courthouse back to the Sea to Sky corridor.

"That would be tremendous news if that was happening," said Squamish RCMP Cpl. Dave Ritchie.

If negotiations with Oppal continue successfully, Squamish could see the first sitting in its new provincial court by 2007, according to unconfirmed reports.

Council for the District of Squamish has been diligently negotiating to bring the court back since provincial cuts resulted in the courthouse closure in 2002. The negotiations were thought to be at a stalemate, said Ritchie, when the Attorney General's office said the region would have to finance and house the court in a building other than the former location on Second Avenue.

An announcement stating an agreement has finally been reached is anticipated Monday (June 12) at the Adventure Centre. Mayor Ian Sutherland would only confirm that a press conference will be held Monday at the Adventure Centre at 10 a.m.

West Vancouver-Garibaldi MLA Joan McIntyre and Oppal were unavailable for comment by press time.

A localized courthouse will mean a return to a judicial system reflecting the "local flavour," said Ritchie. Judges and prosecutors would be more aware of regional problems currently overshadowed by big city burdens.

"When you have your own prosecutor or your own courthouse the judge realizes what the community thinks and wants or are concerned about," he said. "If we get a rash of theft from vehicles, for example, well in Vancouver they don't even report theft from vehicles to the police. You lose that local flavour."

On Jan. 17, 2002, the B.C. government announced dramatic cuts to the provincial budget and the shutting down of 23 courthouses, including the Squamish provincial courthouse.

The closure resulted in tremendous challenges for local RCMP members who now face the time and expense of traveling to North Vancouver every time prosecutors bring a suspect into court. Their constant travel meant a $50,000 annual burden to Squamish and less local police presence in town. Suspects and victims also suffered since they sometimes didn't have the means to travel to and from North Vancouver.

"It's been huge on all parties involved," said Ritchie.

In early February 2002, shortly after the closure was announced, then-Mayor Corinne Lonsdale said that a meeting with Attorney General Geoff Plant resulted in his agreeing to review the Squamish decision and consider moving the courthouse into city hall council chambers to save on the costs associated with the current location. Plant never followed up on the review, however.

The decision to close the courthouses was widely challenged and even went to the B.C. Supreme Court. The Law Society of B.C. said the decision to close the courthouses was made without the authority of the Provincial Court Judiciary, the Chief Judge or the participation and consultation with judges required by the constitution.

District of Squamish Council called for the provincial government to review its decision as "ill-informed" after Lonsdale received a letter from Campbell dated July 25, 2002 regarding the decision to close the courthouse.

"I understand your concern about the loss of court sittings in Squamish, but I wish to assure you that no viable and cost-effective alternative is available to the consolidation at North Vancouver," Campbell wrote.

Closure of the Squamish facility would result in an annual saving of approximately half a million dollars per year, according to Campbell's letter.

"Justice is not being served in the District of Squamish," said Lonsdale, who continued to lobby the province to restore court services to Squamish. Her campaign was picked up by Sutherland after he became mayor in late 2002.

One of the reasons for the closure was what was said to be unreasonable lease rates on the courthouse building on Second Avenue. Last year, the new owners of the building offered to give the provincial government half a year of free use of the space if it would reopen the court in Squamish.

At the time, Sutherland indicated the province was not interested in returning to the same building if it brought court services back to Squamish.

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