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Court delays unlikely to be fixed with more judges

Jan 07 2012

B.C.'s attorney general is not promising to hire any new judges despite a growing backlog in the justice system and a doubling of the number of cases thrown out of court.

Shirley Bond, who is also solicitor general, said Friday she considers any delay or stay of court proceedings unacceptable.

But she stopped short of committing money to fix the issue, saying her government is in a "very difficult fiscal circumstance" when it comes to increasing justice funding.

"There is not an unending pot of money that comes from taxpayers in this province," said Bond.

"So we have to actually . . . challenge the judiciary, we have to challenge the lawyers in British Columbia to say, 'How are we going to actually address some of these things differently?' "

Lawyers and critics say the justice system is in crisis. The number of criminal cases taking longer than 18 months to reach trial had grown to 2,522 by Sept. 30 last year, the most recent statistics from the provincial court, compared with 2,038 in September 2010. Stayed provincial adult criminal and youth court cases have almost doubled, to 109 in 2011 from 56 in 2010. It is not known how many were due to delays.

Wait times for a trial in Victoria are now often more than a year, Victoria-based lawyer Paul Pearson said. If a trial does not proceed on the first scheduled date there is a good chance that the defence lawyer may apply to have the charges judicially stayed due to an unreasonable delay, he said. "Cases are being thrown out if they can't proceed on the first date," said Pearson, a member of the Trial Lawyers Association of B.C.

The Times Colonist has highlighted past incidents that were stayed due to a shortage of judges and lack of court time and resources.

Delays take a serious toll on those accused, who spend years in a kind of limbo, waiting to get their date in court with accusations hanging over their heads, Pearson said. "The reality is, yes, many people who are alleged to commit criminal offences are guilty, that's true. But there are many that are innocent and who are stressed out and can't believe how long it's going to take them to clear their name."

The provincial court is short of 18 full-time judges, according to a December court report. The Victoria courthouse has five full-time provincial court judges, two fewer than provincial court requirements. There are seven part-time senior judges.

The government has also been criticized for underfunding sheriff services and courthouse staff, although last year it put some money back into sheriffs. It also added $2.1 million in legal-aid funding last month, but lawyers say it is not enough.

NDP justice critic Leonard Krog said underfunding is wasting the efforts of police and prosecutors. "The essence of what I'm trying to say is, look, they've left the court system in such a mess it's like telling the police not to bother arresting criminals because we don't have the resources to ensure that they'll ever get to a trial," said Krog.

rshaw@timescolonist.com

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