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Justice delayed has had its day, report says

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

Criminal cases in B.C.’s provincial courts should be resolved within six months, the lawyer charged with reviewing the backlogged justice system said Thursday.

“The culture of delay that has existed for too long must be replaced by a culture of timeliness,” said Geoffrey Cowper, who was appointed by Premier Christy Clark in February to consult the legal community and come up with recommendations for dealing with court delays.

Cowper’s report, entitled A Criminal Justice System for the 21st Century, was delivered to Justice Minister and Attorney General Shirley Bond on Tuesday and released to the public at a news conference in downtown Vancouver Thursday. In the 270-page report, Cowper calls for systemic change to meet the public’s expectations for the fair and timely delivery of justice.

His recommendations include the appointment of five new provincial court judges “to aggressively reduce” or even eliminate the backlog of cases clogging the courts.

“We have a great opportunity right now,” said Cowper. “With the decline in crime and the decline in cases, the backlog is actually lower than it has been for years. I think we should not stop at this point. I think we should get rid of it entirely.”

Bond said she will release an action plan in the fall, laying out how government will respond to the recommendations, but she made no financial commitments to appointing five new judges, nor did she have a clear timeline for carrying out any changes. 

Her first priority will be to target the inexpensive changes, such as finding inefficiencies in court scheduling.

“I’ve been very clear that the first answer to solving problems isn’t writing a cheque,” she said. “If we make systemic changes, that will free up resources to improve the system.”

NDP Attorney General critic Leonard Krog called the justice system “broken” and urged Bond to appoint the five judges to get rid of the backlog of cases.

“The provincial government could hire the new five and see if that has the impact that is expected,” Krog said.

Those five judges should be appointed by the end of the year, said Kerry Simmons, a Victoria lawyer and the president of the B.C. branch of the Canadian Bar Association.

“I don’t know if those five would eliminate the backlog, but they would certainly help reduce it,” she said.

The backlog of provincial cases dropped in 2011-2012 from 33,000 to just over 26,000 cases. Data from the Ministry of Justice show a drop of 8,000 in the number of impaired-driving cases referred to Crown counsel as a result of the new immediate roadside prohibitions.

But the age of the pending cases has risen and is a concern. Almost 50 per cent of those cases have been in the system for more than eight months. Four per cent of pending cases have been in the system for more than two years.

There are still far too many cases taking longer than 18 months to complete, said Samiran Lakshman, president of the B.C. Crown Counsel Association. He urged government to implement changes as soon as possible.

Bond agreed with Cowper’s suggestion that most cases should be cleared within six months.

“Justice takes too long,” Bond said.

The report includes an analysis of B.C.’s charge assessment process by Gary McCuaig, Alberta’s former chief prosecutor, which concludes that Crown counsel should continue to be responsible for approving charges, instead of turning that job over to police, as is done in some jurisdictions.

“I agree with that recommendation. From a systems perspective the approval of charges by police would create unhelpful duplication of effort and would result in a far higher level of stays of proceeding,” said Cowper.

ldickson@timescolonist.com

dspalding@timescolonist.com

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