Vernon landmark provides a century of justice
It once housed formal dances along with trials.
Lawyers have been known to “rest” there over weekends. Government offices were a fixture. Prisoners were escorted up and down three floors because there was no elevator. Its library, once overflowing with law books, is nearly empty now, a victim of the electronic age.
It is, today, where civil, family and criminal disputes are heard. There are hidden stairways, original wood fold-up seats in the Supreme Court gallery, empty offices, and a flooded courtroom being renovated.
The Vernon Courthouse has seen so much in 100 years of service. And it could see more if much-desired expansion plans are ever approved and financed.
“This used to be the only courthouse in the Interior that had a jury room so you could do jury trials,” said Supreme Court Justice Frank Cole during a tour of the magnificent facility on the northeast corner of 30th Avenue and 27th Street which celebrates its centenary this spring.
Thanks to the efforts of Price Ellison, who served as Vernon’s member of the provincial legislature from 1898-1916, including double duty as minister of finance and agriculture in premier Richard McBride’s government, a decision was made to replace Vernon’s existing courthouse built in 1892.
That building was a two-storey brick building, the first such brick facility in the Interior, located at the intersection of Coldstream and Barnard Avenues.
The new courthouse, announced in Ellison’s budget speech in 1911, would be the second largest courthouse in the province behind Vancouver.
Plans were produced by Vancouver-Victoria architect Thomas Hooper, and construction was handled by John Burns and Son from Nelson.
All material construction was mandated to be local.
Locally quarried pink granite from Okanagan Landing was to be used for the exterior walls. while B.C. marble was employed for panelling the lower part of the walls of a courtroom, the main entrance, vestibules and corridors on the basement and main (second) floors (Italian marble, though, was specified for the main staircase steps and flooring tiling).
Locally manufactured bricks were used for internal dividing walls. Interior wood finish and trim was made with B.C. fir. The furnishings for the courtroom and government agent’s office were to be built of white oak.
Natural lighting for the court came courtesy of large stained glass windows above the front entrance and by a glass dome overhead.
After three years of construction, the new courthouse opened in 1914 and housed administrative and court facilities on its three floors.
Total cost: $198,876.10.
Just five years later, in 1919, several structural difficulties were encountered, so renovations were taken in order to fix sagging and settling problems.
Since then, there have been a number of renovations to the facility, including the removal of the dome and the addition of the elevator.
“We’re always morphing somewhere as needed,” said Sheree Marshall, manager of court registry operations, and a courthouse employee since 1977. A basement courtroom is under repair after having endured a flood in late 2013.
With a number of offices in the courthouse vacant, those in the legal profession would love to see renovations to the existing courthouse, especially with the grand old building turning 100 this year.
“The most pressing need is more courtrooms so more judges can sit,” said Mike Yawney, a lawyer with Vernon law firm Nixon-Wenger.
“From the bar side of it, for the clients that use this facility, that’s the No. 1 issue. And new rooms could be accommodated, absolutely. There is lots of space to create more courtrooms.”
Cole, who was called to the bar on Sept. 15, 1970, started the next day with Davidson and Co. in Vernon, and spent 16 years with Davidson, 15 years with Sigalet, McGuire and Cole and the last 18 years on the bench.
He is among those pushing for more space.
“In addition to the empty offices, there is the large library that is no longer needed because of the electronic age and a smaller office space would be suitable,” said Cole.
“Returning Crown counsel and probation to the courthouse (since moved to downtown offices), the government would save a significant amount of money.”
What is required in Vernon says Cole, is five courtrooms in the Vernon Courthouse to make it suitable for civil trials. A new, standalone building should be built to provide secure facilities for three courtrooms for criminal trials, including one courtroom suitable for jury trials.
“The accused, the convicted, Crown counsel, lawyers, the public and judges all share the same corridors,” said Cole of the existing facility.
“That is unsafe for all parties that use the courthouse.”
In 2012, 12 trials in Vernon were bumped, or adjourned, because of lack of court space, compared to four cases bumped in Victoria.
Cases being adjourned because of a lack of court facility means that the trial is delayed or has to be moved to Kamloops or Kelowna.
About 10 trials scheduled for Vernon in 2012 were moved to those cities.
“It is unfair for the people of this community to have to absorb the extra cost and inconvenience of travelling to Kelowna when proper court facilities should be here in Vernon,” said Cole.
The Vernon Bar Association, in conjunction with Law Days, will hold a special celebration of the Vernon Courthouse in April.