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Turn art gallery building back into courthouse, B.C.'s top judge says

B.C.'s top judge says the building that houses the Vancouver Art Gallery should be returned to its original role as a courthouse if the gallery decides to move to another location.

Art gallery administrators have been vigorously making the case for the city to provide a new and more spacious building at a former bus depot site in central Vancouver.

"Should that occur, I suggest that no better use for [the art gallery building]can be found than its restoration as a courthouse that will accommodate the Court of Appeal and other legally related enterprises," Mr. Justice Lance Finch of the B.C. Court of Appeal told a recent public forum organized by former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan.

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"Beyond meeting the needs of the court for more space, reclamation of the courthouse as a courthouse will serve a more important function. It will restore and preserve this beautiful heritage building for a purpose, in a form, and in a dignified setting worthy of its origins."

The veteran judge, who rarely comments in public on such issues, expanded on his views in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

"My feeling is that our court could probably occupy one whole floor in both the main building and in the Robson Street wing, which would leave the two floors below that for other purposes, and there are a number of other bodies, who have expressed interest in the use of that space," he said, suggesting offices for judges, courtrooms and the registry could move into the current gallery building.

The venerable complex now housing the art gallery was constructed for about $400,000 between 1906 and 1911 as a home for the B.C. Court of Appeal, the B.C. Supreme Court and the County Court of Vancouver. It was a home to the courts until 1978 when the seven-storey Vancouver Law Courts designed by noted architect Arthur Erickson, opened.

But Judge Finch said the Law Courts, site of such notable proceedings as the trial of the accused Air-India bombers, has been dogged by various problems.

They include occasional leaks into judges' offices from a drained lake built into a bridge structure over Smithe Street and cracked panes of glass in its atrium. In addition, Law Courts courtrooms are not built for new electronic technology that would make appeal proceedings more efficient and less expensive.

Judge Finch that some glass panels in the Great Hall of the complex have fractured, forcing the raising of plywood barricades for lengthy repairs. "It sort of makes the Great Hall look like a construction zone," he said.

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In the interview, Judge Finch emphasized that justice is being properly administered notwithstanding problems with the Law Courts.

"The first judge in the province of British Columbia was Matthew Baillie Begbie. He held court on horseback. If you list our current problems about the building along the sorts of situations he had to confront, they're not a big deal.

"The judges can all do their work and the judges all do do their work. So if I had to make a case that the present building was unsatisfactory, I couldn't make that case. My point is that the old courthouse is not being treated the way it should.

"It is a national historic site. It has heritage designation from the city of Vancouver and it's not being looked after. I think if the Law Courts went back in there, it would be looked after."

He said the exterior of the complex has sometimes been cluttered, especially at the north end of the property where trucks, trailers, tents and other vehicles sometimes obscure the building.

But, he told the forum, it could become an "open green space" to underline Vancouver's commitment to "open beauty."

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Judge Finch said his proposal has been promoted for some years by a group of lawyers called Friends of the Old Courthouse. He said he has attended some meetings of the group.

The pitch has been made both to Attorney-General Mike de Jong and his predecessor Wally Oppal. "I guess I would describe the response as, sort of, 'Well, it's a nice idea but there's just no money for it.' I'm not quoting anybody, but that would sort of be the bottom line," said Judge Finch.

Mr. de Jong did not return a call seeking comment.

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