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Police laying own charges called 'step backward'

Mar 01 2012

Giving police the power to lay criminal charges would be a "significant step backward" that could add thousands of court cases and cost the justice system millions of dollars, says B.C.'s Criminal Justice Branch.

The current system, in which police recommend charges to Crown prosecutors, who then weigh the evidence, is fair and cost efficient, according to an internal report obtained by the Times Colonist.

Any fundamental changes "would represent a significant step backward from where we are now," the report states.

Letting police officers lay their own charges, without them being first vetted by prosecutors, would add an estimated 40,000 cases to the court system, the report says. The resulting increased workload would cost $13.94 million in additional prosecutors, judges and legal aid services, says the report, dated Jan. 26.

Despite the criticism, two weeks later, Premier Christy Clark announced a sweeping review of the justice system, including a review of the charge assessment process and whether B.C. should let police directly lay charges.

Justice Minister Shirley Bond said she is "not surprised the Criminal Justice Branch thinks that the status-quo model works effectively" and that's partly why she has asked for an outside review of the process.

"I think that's just symptomatic of the fact that, when you're looking at change, people defend, oftentimes, the current status quo," she said.

The Liberal government's review came after months of criticism that it was underfunding the justice system - causing long delays and leading some cases to be thrown out of court - by not hiring enough judges, prosecutors, sheriffs and court staff.

B.C. is one of three provinces where police recommend charges to Crown and independent prosecutors review the evidence to decide if there is a substantial likelihood of conviction and whether a charge is in the public interest.

Police in B.C. say they are ready to lay their own charges, and have criticized the current model as unaccountable and flawed.

But Crown prosecutors oppose giving police the additional power. Civil liberties critics have said once a person is charged, even if the charge is later dropped, it becomes a permanent mark on their record.

"It's a terrible idea," said Michael Mulligan, a Victoria criminal defence lawyer. "It's not that the police aren't competent, but you are asking them to do what they're not trained to do."

Police on Vancouver Island already swear charges against people on weekends because no Crown prosecutors are on duty. Mulligan said he has been told by a senior Crown official that about 75 per cent of weekend charges are later stayed or altered by the Crown.

The Criminal Justice Branch report said 17.2 per cent of charges recommended by police in 2010-11 were not approved by Crown prosecutors.

rshaw@timescolonist.com

ldickson@timescolonist.com

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