Access to Justice Is More Than Just Access to Courts: Youth Justice and the New Toronto Courthouse

Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General is building a new courthouse in Toronto that will combine most of the city’s criminal courts, including all three youth courts, in one location downtown. Designed by a world-renowned architect and filled with technological innovation, it is being celebrated as a step forward for access to justice in the city. But access to justice is not just about access to a courtroom. It is about access to outcomes—outcomes that provide the most vulnerable groups, such as youth in conflict with the law, with the support they need to work towards more positive futures.

As a charity with 15 years running restorative court-diversion programs for youth, Peacebuilders knows firsthand why including youth in a courthouse primarily designed to deal with adult criminal justice matters is not what works. We know that the most effective way to support young people, reduce recidivism, and ensure community safety is through  community programs. For justice-involved youth, courts and legal services alone do not address the underlying issues that lead them to conflict with the law. If anything, the reverse is true: studies have shown that appearance in court can potentially trigger further involvement with the criminal justice system in the future.

On November 27, Peacebuilders held a community forum about the future of youth court in Toronto. Bringing together justice professionals, youth workers, parents and young people with experience in the justice system, the forum was an opportunity to discuss how the Ministry’s plans will affect youth and imagine what a better approach to youth justice should look like.

Over 100 people attended and shared their concerns with the Ministry’s plans. One of the most consistent concerns was lack of accessibility for young people—some of whom will have a two hour commute to make court appearances. Safety and security concerns were repeatedly raised by parents who worry about how young people will be protected at a criminal courthouse that is expected to handle 40,000, mostly adult, criminal cases a year. Most importantly, no one wanted to see the loss of a child-centred approach that embeds wide-ranging youth-focused supportive services in the justice system.

Lawyers, youth, families and judges all made repeated reference to the Ontario Court of Justice at 311 Jarvis Street, a highly-regarded youth court in Toronto. 311 Jarvis has pioneered a very different model that brings together family courts, youth courts, and youth support services under one roof. Opened in 1957, it was designed to be “more clinic, than court,” fostering a child-centred approach to youth justice that aims to address the underlying factors that lead young people to conflict with the law, including problems at home, poverty and under-housing, substance use and mental health issues.

311 Jarvis has brought about real improvements in youth justice that reflect the goals of the Canada’s youth justice legislation. All judges and courthouse personnel—justices of the peace, Crown Attorneys, clerks, and court officers—have developed unique expertise in working with young people. Criminal defense lawyers that represent youth say that 311 Jarvis has fostered a culture of compassion that is felt in every corner of the building—one that cannot be replicated in an adult courthouse necessarily oriented towards punishment.

Now that construction is beginning, the Ministry will focus on fine-tuning the plans for service delivery. We hope that the feedback we have heard from experts, end-users and concerned citizens will influence those plans. Justice-involved youth need more than legal services to obtain access to justice; they need a youth-centred approach. Evidence and experience show that treating youth as youth reduces the chances they will become repeat offenders and increases the likelihood that they will be become the next generation of leaders for their communities. We know which access to justice outcome we want to see.

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