Short term solutions happening for delays in Manitoba’s circuit courts, says judge

By Terry Davidson

Law360 Canada (February 24, 2023, 4:20 PM EST) -- A top judge in Manitoba says “short term” relief is starting to happen for the province’s northern circuit courts, many of which have been experiencing delays due to flight cancellations by a company contracted out by the provincial government.

Manitoba Provincial Court Chief Judge Margaret Wiebe and others in the province’s criminal justice sector have been sounding the alarm as of late due to the delays, which have been occurring over the past number of months.

 Chief Judge Margaret Wiebe

Chief Judge Margaret Wiebe

Over this time, numerous flights have been grounded, with much of the blame being placed on an industry-wide pilot shortage.

The flight cancellations have impacted proceedings in 22 northern communities, many of which are in remote locations where participants — including lawyers, judges and accused people — are flown in for their respective matters.  

The issue can be traced back a few years.

In February 2019, Manitoba’s government announced it had entered into an agreement with Exchange Income Corp. (EIC) to provide air transport services into the north for those participating in provincial court proceedings.

Airlines operating under EIC included Bearskin Lake Air Service, Calm Air and Keewatin Air. At the time, the government insisted the move would mean safer service, a cheaper price tag and, interestingly, fewer delays.

Chief Judge Wiebe recently told Law360 Canada that EIC's Keewatin Air has been supplying most of the flights to the circuit courts. She also said that she has “spoken directly” to CEO Michael Pyle a “number of times,” and that a “short term” solution may have been found.  

She recently said that “the performance was better this week as EIC added more flights and is working on a way to continue the improvements.”

“They are working very hard to come up with a solution, and I will be sitting down with [Pyle] in the next while, because they do have a short-term solution. I know they are bringing in additional planes and additional pilots from other places to help us to manage courts more fully over the next short while, while we figure out a longer term solution. That is a very positive thing. … Because the current situation that we have, and the lack of access to justice that it is creating, is not sustainable and it is creating a … backlog.”

Chief Judge Wiebe stressed that there has been “a very real human cost” to the delays, and that a long-term solution must be found.

When contacted, Pyle said he and his company are in ongoing talks with Manitoba’s government about the situation.  

“We’re working with the government on the specific requirements of the contract,” he said. “We’re close to solving the issue, and, in fact … the performance has improved as of late, in the last week.”

Pyle said he was not able to comment further due to his company’s contract with the province not allowing him to comment to the media.

Manitoba’s government was sent several questions about the situation — most of which went unanswered. A spokesperson, however, did acknowledge that there are problems.  

“An industry-wide pilot shortage is challenging Manitoba Justice operations for the 22 fly-in communities of northern Manitoba,” they said in an email. “Further to that, extreme weather conditions and logistics, such as snow clearing in these remote communities, have also contributed to flight availability. Whenever possible, court dockets are heard virtually in order to avoid cancellations.”

They did not provide answers as to what caused the pilot shortage, but Chief Judge Wiebe said it was sparked by pilot layoffs and retirements during the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic shutdowns.

The chief judge was asked whether the government’s contracting out to only one company contributed to the problem, and if at least one other transportation company should be brought into the mix as a way of increasing service.

She said Manitoba’s government was entitled to hire whom it wanted.

“That is a decision that they are entitled to make. … But what I will say is we need a solution, and we need to look at whatever potential solutions are out there. It seems [IEC] right now is working very hard towards a solution. If for some reason that doesn’t pan out, we are an essential service and … we need to provide access to justice to those communities. And so if supplemental transportation is what is necessary to do that, then I think we have to take whatever steps are appropriate.”

When asked about the use of remote technology, Chief Judge Wiebe said virtual and telephone appearances have been used in some cases as a way of keeping some matters going, but that it is not always possible or appropriate to go this route.

“The communities that are most affected by this pilot shortage and the fact that we can’t get into [them] are the same communities that do not have the infrastructure often so that we can actually deal with matters remotely or virtually,” she said.

Criminal Defence Lawyers’ Association of Manitoba communications director Chris Gamby said the problem of procedural delay has had a big impact on court participants — including clients.

“If you think about it, if you’ve got somebody who’s got a trial scheduled that day, they may have been waiting months, even a year, for this trial to occur,” said Gamby. “There’s all the emotions, all the anxiety. They paid a lawyer to come up there and represent them to the court, and the matter doesn’t get off the ground — quite literally.”

Gamby said “the entire bar is concerned about this.”

Gamby, himself, has also been impacted. It was in October that he became “trapped” in one of these norther communities for two days due to a grounded flight. In the end, he ended up having to take a long bus ride back home.

He also noted that delays in the north have been exacerbated by recent changes to regulations governing pilots’ hours of service, which ground pilots once they reach a certain number of hours in the air.

Gamby was asked if he agreed that flight service has improved recently.  

He said in an email that he was not “in a position to speak to any changes in terms of operations that have happened with this.”

“Our association usually monitors a problem broadly and we hear from our members if there are specific issues they can address. Beyond those who have already gone on record with other outlets I have not heard anything recent on the issue, specifically not as recent as the past two weeks or so.”

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