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Push on for courthouse expansion

Local MLAs from both sides of Alberta’s Legislature are being asked to join the push for a bigger courthouse in Red Deer.

Alberta Justice has a time-limited opportunity for a land swap that would create an ideal location for a bigger courthouse while creating new office space for city staff, says Brent Handel, president of the Central Alberta Bar Association.

Red Deer’s courthouse, built in 1982, needs twice the courtrooms and twice the administrative space now available, Handel said in a recent interview with the Advocate.

Thirty years after it was first built, the courthouse serves a city whose population has more than doubled while a number of district courts have been closed and their case loads moved to Red Deer. They include courtrooms in Lacombe, Innisfail and Sylvan Lake.

Handel’s group, representing 162 lawyers and judges working in the Red Deer judicial district, is working with Red Deer Mayor Morris Flewwelling and retired Justice Jim Foster to arrange a trade which would provide the former RCMP property for a new courthouse and convert the existing building into office space for the city.

An appropriate exchange of cash would make up for any difference in market value between the two properties.

But Handel’s most recent reply from Justice Minister Johnathan Denis continues little encouragement, stating that there are similar needs in other jurisdictions.

Handel is worried that the opportunity will close before the government takes action, leaving citizens in the district with the most backlogged court system in Canada — a situation that he finds difficult to fathom in the country’s richest province.

“The City can’t wait forever. They have to make some decisions,” said Handel.

He, Flewwelling and Foster hope to gain ground in a meeting with MLAs from throughout the judicial district, set for Dec. 14.

Flewwelling said the meeting will have some interesting dynamics, because it will be the first time in more than 40 years that the region has had a mix of MLAs from both the government and the opposition.

He hopes that MLAs from throughout the judicial district, including the city’s two government MLAs and the five Wildrose Party MLAs from the region’s rural ridings, will be able to rise above their political differences and support a plan that can be of broad benefit to their constituents.

Handel urges all voters within the region to contact the Justice Minister and their own MLAs to help encourage them to move forward with courthouse expansion in Red Deer.

People accused of crimes are not the only victims of a backlogged court system, said Flewwelling.

In Red Deer especially, where the divorce rate is among the highest in Canada, children suffer the impact when custody battles are drawn out because of backlogs at the courthouse, he said.

Even simple procedures take longer in Red Deer, said Handel.

The time it takes to probate a will in Red Deer is three to four months, compared with three to four weeks in Calgary or Edmonton, he said.

Victims of crime also suffer needlessly because it takes so long to bring the people who have hurt them to trial, said Handel.

While acknowledging that building a new courthouse will take some time, Handel and Flewwelling both expressed their hope that the province will at least make a land deal while the opportunity is still available.

The existing courthouse was designed so additional floors could be added over time, he said. However, budget cuts at the time of construction meant that the heavier footings required to hold additional floors were not installed, so the building cannot be enlarged as planned.



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