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Ontario is moving ahead with construction of a megacourthouse, which will absorb operations of five existing locations spread across Toronto. But issues of accessibility for clients and relatives are going concerns ahead of the courthouse's scheduled completion in 2021

During the 12-month period ending in June, 12,722 cases were heard at the Old City Hall courthouse. The new courthouse that will be built nearby will be able to handle more than three times the volume of cases currently heard at Old City Hall.

There are six provincial court buildings in Toronto and, for the most part, they were never designed to house criminal cases. Some are in office buildings, others in strip malls. Many are crowded, with small windowless courtrooms, poor access to public transit and out-of-date technology. At the College Park courthouse, the video feed that allows lawyers to speak privately with clients in custody frequently breaks down.

After years of complaints and under pressure about mounting court delays, the province is moving ahead with the construction of a megacourthouse downtown that will replace five existing locations. It's a massive project, costing upward of $1-billion, that the Ontario government says will save $700-million in lease payments over the next three decades.

A request for proposals to construct the state-of-the-art courthouse closed this week – two companies, EllisDon Corp. and Plenary Justice, prequalified – and the finalist is expected to be announced this fall. No formal design has yet been unveiled, but when it's finished in 2021 (if the project stays on track), the building will probably be taller than neighbouring City Hall.

Yet, even before a shovel is in the ground, questions are being raised by the legal community about whether virtually all criminal court proceedings in a city the size of Toronto should be centralized in one location.

Anthony Moustacalis, president of the provincial Criminal Lawyers' Association (CLA), says requiring not only accused persons, but witnesses and complainants as well, to come to the busy city core raises practical issues. "It is difficult for people to get to local courthouses, let alone downtown." (Currently, an individual who is charged in Toronto will appear at the courthouse closest to where the alleged offence took place.)

The new courthouse will be built just south of a busy section of Dundas Street, west of Bay Street. The 6,600-square-metre site is bounded by Chestnut Street on the east, Armoury Street to the south and Centre Avenue to the west; construction is expected to start next spring.

The city has granted zoning permission for the courthouse to have a maximum height of 135 metres, with as many as 24 storeys and more than 70,000 square metres of floor space. In Toronto, only the existing provincial court building at Finch Avenue West and Highway 400 will remain open once the downtown courthouse is completed.

The New Toronto Courthouse project is the sixth and most complex courthouse construction to be overseen by Infrastructure Ontario. The provincial agency has not released details of what it is expected to cost, but external estimates suggest it could be as much as $1-billion. Unlike the previous courthouse projects, this structure will be situated in an already very crowded section of the largest city in the country.

Mark Garner, executive director of the Downtown Yonge Business Improvement Area, wonders if there is sufficient infrastructure to deal with the future influx of people. "Our neighbourhood is getting very tall. How are we going to get in and out of that area each day?" Mr. Garner asked.

The Toronto Transit Commission says there are no specific plans to deal with increased traffic as a result of the courthouse construction. However, future improvements to its streetcars on Dundas Street West and updated subway signal systems will allow for 25-per-cent more capacity on the Yonge subway line by the end of 2020, TTC spokesman Stuart Green says.

The Ontario Court of Justice handles more than 95 per cent of all criminal cases in the province – from minor shoplifting charges to preliminary hearings for those accused of murder. The new courthouse will have more than three times the volume of cases currently heard at nearby Old City Hall each day. (During the 12-month period ending in June, 12,722 cases were heard at Old City Hall, according to the Ontario Court of Justice.)

The provincial courthouse at 2201 Finch Ave. W. will remain open to handle all bail hearings and first appearances for anyone charged with a criminal offence in Toronto. There are even questions about this location given the courthouse’s distance from much of the city.

Parking at the new courthouse will be extremely limited. For security reasons, public parking will not be permitted underground and about 100 spots have been allocated for judges and some court staff.

Traditionally, the province "hasn't adopted a client-services model" in its administration of courthouses, Mr. Moustacalis said. "They always make sure the institutional players get the preference."

The criminal courts in Ontario may be one of the last institutions where fax machines are still used to exchange information. Many defence lawyers have complained that even in new courthouses, such as the one in Kitchener, only Crown attorneys have online access inside a courtroom.

Emilie Smith, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of the Attorney-General, says both the Crown and the defence will have online access – which can be used for legal research in the middle of a trial – in the new Toronto building.

Asked about concerns about the impact of centralizing operations downtown, Ms. Smith said in an e-mail that "the new Toronto courthouse will better serve the City of Toronto by having justice programs and services (including drug treatment, Indigenous persons, youth and mental-health courts, and support for victims) in a single location, with more modern and accessible justice services." She added that discussions are under way to ensure participants in the justice system can be accommodated through video and other measures, where appropriate.

A centralized provincial court location will be useful for defence lawyers, says Lori Anne Thomas, a director of the CLA. "We won't have to scramble, getting around the city."

But for clients and witnesses, she echoes the concerns about a lack of public transit.

"If you are in Scarborough, North York or Etobicoke, getting downtown is difficult at the best of times. And you may not be able to afford to pay for parking," she said.

The 2201 Finch Ave. W. courthouse that will remain open will be used for all bail hearings and first appearances for anyone charged with a criminal offence in Toronto. That decision has also been questioned because of the courthouse's distant location from much of the city. The Finch LRT is supposed to be completed by 2021, but that will still require long trips for most people facing charges or family members seeking to be a surety at a bail hearing.

The province is promising what it calls state-of-the-art technology for remote appearances by video. Ms. Thomas, who is part of a committee struck by the province on handling bail hearings, says it has been "pro-active" in hearing other viewpoints. Whether someone has to go downtown to testify by video or to the courthouse on Finch may not solve the practical problems though, she suggests. (It has not been announced whether family members and others might be able to testify at bail hearings remotely by video.)

One other factor that should be considered, Mr. Moustacalis says, is not about design, costs or transit resources – but broader public-policy changes.

"A new courthouse could allow for a new perspective. Get rid of the petty offences. Do more to redirect individuals with mental-health and addiction problems. That would ensure the courthouse resources are sufficient," he says.

Old City Hall. Sid Tabak/CS&P Architects

What will become of Old City Hall?

Old City Hall opened in 1899 after years of construction and at a cost that was four times its original budget of $600,000. At the time, it was the largest municipal building in North America and served both as Toronto City Hall and as a courthouse.

When the current City Hall opened across the street in 1965, there were concerns the old E.J. Lennox-designed structure would be demolished. But it was saved and later declared a national historic site. It has also been one of the most majestic and sometimes quirky provincial court buildings in the country.

By the end of 2021, though, Old City Hall will serve another purpose. What that will be still needs to be determined by Toronto City Council. A report will come before council this fall, calling on city staff to develop a design process and conduct a study to determine the feasibility of a museum and other public spaces in the building.

One factor council will ultimately have to consider is financial. The existing agreement with the province to use the building as a courthouse generates total annual leasing revenue of $9.7-million for the city.

Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam says financial sustainability will be part of the task facing city staff.

"They are going to come up with a business plan. How do you give an old building new life?" she said. Ms. Wong-Tam adds that she is not opposed to "unique retail with one-off Canadian items" in part of the space. She stresses it would have to be part of a synchronized plan for the building as a whole.

Mark Garner, executive director of the Downtown Yonge BIA, says Old City Hall should be primarily a museum about Toronto's history, including its musical past.

"There is a great story to tell in that building. Sometimes, we have historical amnesia about our city," he said.

Shannon Kari, Special to The Globe and Mail

Toronto Provincial Court statistics

Total number of criminal cases received annually (a case is all counts against an individual)

Percentage of total cases that were murder or attempted murder

Percentage of total cases with charges of sexual assault or other sexual offences.

Percentage of all cases that involved charges of impaired driving

Percentage of cases with property-crime charges

Percentage of total cases involving charges such as fail to appear or breach of probation

Overall number of court appearances on average for a case to be concluded in Toronto after charges have been filed

Number of Ontario Court of Justice judges currently presiding in Toronto

Source: Ontario Court of Justice, April, 2016-March, 2017