P.E.I. Provincial Supreme Courtroom number 5. Conway photo.
It was 10 a.m. on the Thursday before the Easter holiday when a group of students from the Holland College journalism program entered the Supreme Court of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown for a tour of the facilities.
The students and their instructor were greeted at the door by Sheila Gallant, clerk of the Court of Appeals. Gallant welcomed them warmly and informed them she would be their tour guide.
The first stop on the tour was courtroom No. 5. This is where some of the larger court cases are handled as it can hold up to 120 people.
Gallant started off the tour of the courtroom by pointing out the holding area in which the defendant would be held to protect those in the court and themselves as well.
“Prisoners leave the holding area to go up stairs with the deputies,” she said. “It is to prevent violence.”
Sheila Gallant, showing students around the courtroom. Conway photo.
Gallant said this particular courtroom was also used in civil cases and explained how a criminal case differs from a civil case.
“The purpose of a civil case is to settle a dispute for money,” she said. “It often involves an insurance claim.”
Students were shown everything from the judge’s desk to the jury box, but one thing they found really interesting was the press area.
The area is in the same area as the public seating area but with one special difference. The seats in the press area have a special little tray attached to each seat for a reporter’s tools of the trade (their pen, paper and what not). Some of the students couldn’t help but test out these little trays first-hand.
Gallant took the time to inform the students about the relationship between journalists and the court system.
She pointed out such things as the need for journalists to seek permission to record court proceedings and to learn of any publication bans that might be in place.
“In a family case, for example, the name of a young offender can not be used,” said Gallant. “Although the offenders initials can be used in violent cases.”
The students began to explore the room to take photographs as Gallant continued to explain the inner workings of the court.
Some of the students looked down upon the room from the judge’s bench as they took pictures from this new perspective and even posed for a group photo.
One student noticed how close the jury box was to the witness stand. Gallant said that was to make sure the jury members could clearly hear the testimony as well as to observe the mannerisms of witnesses. It is all an effort to make sure the jury will make the best judgment possible.
Gallant also pointed out that this particular courtroom is also used for special occasions, as it is called a ceremonial court.
“This courtroom is also used for when a new judge is sworn in to the Supreme Court,” she said.
The tour of courtroom No. 5 came to a close and the tour group was on the move as they made their way upstairs to courtroom No.3.
The students couldn’t help but feel as if there was something different about this new courtroom, something which separates it from the room they had visited just minutes before.
The students were surprised when they realized the courtroom was actually quite smaller than the one they had already visited.
Gallant said this is a courtroom used for the court of appeals, mostly for human rights and workers compensation cases.
One of the young journalists asked about an interesting painting being proudly displayed in the room. Gallant explained it was a portrait of Henry Davies.
Gallant answer a question asked by Journalism student Patricia Nunez. Conway photo.
“The only Islander to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada,” she said. “He held the position from 1876-9. He was also an MP and the Fisheries Minister as well.”
Before the tour ended, Gallant gave a bit of a history lesson about her time working at the Supreme Court.
She started in 1984, which makes her tenure, the third longest in the court.
“Only two of the girls from the head office have been here longer than I have.”
She said she had seen her fair share of strange occurences.
“We had one bombing, two fires, a broken sprinkler system, and of course the car crash that happened a few months back. I’m glad that one happened at night, considering how busy the lobby gets during the day.”
“We also deal with some pretty rude or ‘interesting’ characters on , well I wouldn’t say daily but definitely a weekly basis.”
After Gallant ended the tour, she gave the students directions to courtroom No. 8, which was holding a hearing at the time.
The students (mysef included) were surprised to see a young man enter the court room in shackles. It was quite surreal. He was facing multiple charges, including drug possession, impaired driving, public intoxication, and public mischief.
The man pleaded guilty to all charges but with the time he had already served and the defendant’s willingness to improve his situation in life, the judge sentenced him to pay a $1,000 fine, a $100 fine, 12 months probation, and spend four days in the provincial correctional centre. His drivers licence is also suspended for 12 months.
It is safe to say that these students will not forget their first day in court.