Air service privatization brings justice to a halt

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A decision to privatize Manitoba Justice air services has done a grave disservice to people in northern Manitoba who depend on aviation to keep the wheels of justice turning in their communities.

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Opinion

A decision to privatize Manitoba Justice air services has done a grave disservice to people in northern Manitoba who depend on aviation to keep the wheels of justice turning in their communities.

Instead of lowering costs and building a more reliable and accountable service — as most privatization plans aim to do — the decision has left lawyers on the tarmac hundreds of kilometres away from their clients, who are waiting for their cases to be heard at more than 20 provincial courts in Manitoba accessible only by aircraft.

The provincial government signed a five-year contract in 2019 with Exchange Income Corp., which owns air carriers such as Keewatin Air, Calm Air and Perimeter Aviation that serve the North, to transport judges, lawyers, prosecutors, sheriff’s officers and accused people from Winnipeg to communities such as Cross Lake, Garden Hill or Churchill to participate in trials and other legal matters.

Prior to the deal, Manitoba Justice would charter aircraft to transport legal personnel and would augment that with private services when needed.

The pact with Exchange Income Corp., worth $4.2 million per year, would save taxpayers $1.3 million annually and reduce the number of rescheduled or cancelled court dates, the province said when the deal was announced.

Costs may have dropped, but so has the dependability of the service. The latest example threatening the reputation of justice in northern Manitoba occurred earlier this month, when a cancelled flight to St. Theresa Point First Nation led to a court cancellation and postponed cases affecting 185 people.

“People anywhere in the province should have the same access to justice as people who live in a city, and that simply is not happening,” said Chris Sigurdson, a lawyer who has served clients in Garden Hill and St. Theresa Point for the past 20 years, after the flight cancellation.

Many of these courts served by air service are located in Indigenous communities, where government needs to build credibility with people whose distrust of the legal system has accumulated for decades. Delays caused by cancelled flights can only add to their cynicism.

The incident isn’t an isolated one, either. Mr. Sigurdson says more than half his flights have been cancelled or disrupted in the past several months, with a shortage of pilots cited as the usual cause.

While Manitoba Justice has no control of the number of pilots flying planes in the province, it did receive a warning about privatizing its flights to the North.

A 2018 report by the Manitoba Government Employees Union said private air carriers are susceptible to pilot shortages, noting that enforcing the quality of service would be more difficult after privatization.

Justice is about more than just deciding one person’s innocence or guilt in a criminal trial. Without a trial, witnesses are deprived of the opportunity to testify and aggrieved parties are denied their day in court. Community members deserve to know justice will be served should a crime take place where they live.

“Justice delayed is justice denied” is an age-old legal axiom that rises from cliché to reality in matters such as this.

The Constitution says trials must take place in a timely manner; delays caused by cancelled flights can lead to judges throwing out cases, erasing hours of police investigation and legal work by prosecutors and defence lawyers.

The evidence against the province’s deal with the air carriers mounts. Unless dependable service is restored to northern Manitoba communities, the government will see the verdict on privatization won’t be in its favour.

» Winnipeg Free Press

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