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Jack Knox column: Culture of delay drags down B.C.'s court system

Aug 31 2012
Victoria's courthouse. A report for the provincial government is calling for changes to speed up the pace of justice. 

Victoria's courthouse. A report for the provincial government is calling for changes to speed up the pace of justice.

Photograph by: Lyle Stafford, Victoria Times Colonist , timescolonist.com

For those who don't want to wade through all 270 pages of Geoffrey Cowper's report into B.C.'s creaky legal system, here's a stat that illustrates the problem nicely: by the time the Vancouver Canucks were on the golf course this April, just three of the previous June's Stanley Cup rioters had been punished by the courts.

That kind of story makes people nuts. So does the one about the guy accused of shooting a 12-year-old cancer survivor's puppy on Quadra Island in 2008. The court threw out the case in 2011, saying it had taken too long to come to trial.

Such tales are nothing new to B.C.'s judges, who have ripped the provincial government for neglecting under-resourced courts. The Liberals fired back by accusing the legal community of being out of touch and unwilling to change. In February, Premier Christy Clark commissioned Vancouver lawyer Cowper to look at how to fix things.

The result was the report released Thursday - dozens of recommendations addressing everything from domestic violence to technology to police frustration with prosecutors' unwillingness to lay criminal charges.

The big issue is timeliness. "Timeliness affects everything," Cowper writes. "Not only does delay undermine public confidence in the system, but a culture of delay rewards the wrong behaviour, frustrates the well-intentioned, makes frequent users of the system cynical and disillusioned, and frustrates the rehabilitative goals of the system."

Cowper wants to put the onus on lawyers to resolve more cases early, but says their response to previous attempts to do so has been tepid. "The culture of delay in the court system is resistant to change because there are several benefits to those working within the system that are gained from delay and no accepted means of enforcing timeliness as a priority."

Prosecutors use delays to juggle an overwhelming caseload. Defence attorneys can handle more clients within an extended time frame, and know that drawn-out procedures can result in charges dying on the vine as witnesses move and memories fade. Bad guys will bluff like poker players, going all the way to trial before folding when it's obvious the ploy has failed.

Cowper notes Britain is looking at a proposal to wrap up minor cases within days of a crime, while in B.C. it is common for six to eight weeks to elapse between the offence and an accused's first appearance in court.

All that said, things may not be as bad as the public thinks: Of the 100,000 criminal cases filed in B.C. each year, almost all are resolved before going to trial.

The backlog in provincial court is easing. The number of pending adult criminal cases fell from 33,000 to just over 26,000 in the past year, a level last seen in the early 1990s. That was due largely to the fact that 8,000 fewer drunk-driving cases were forwarded to Crown prosecutors by police, a direct result of the introduction of immediate roadside bans as an alternative.

Alas, that drop has been offset by a dramatic rise in the number of people hauled in for breaking the terms of their bail, probation or other terms of release. They make up 40 per cent of all new cases. It seems the system is still baffled by what to do with those going through the revolving door, the homeless, mentally ill addicts who keep breaking into your car - though Cowper specifically mentioned the new Victoria Integrated Court as a potential solution.

As to where all this goes, who knows? Cowper's paper is a Liberal initiative, and the provincial election is less than eight months away - less time than it takes to prosecute a Stanley Cup rioter.

> B.C. courts require system change, report says, A3

jknox@timescolonist.com

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