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Early trial dates could ease strain

Sep 01 2012

A pilot project in Kelowna provincial court shows that setting early, certain trial dates can resolve most cases before they go to trial, Vancouver lawyer Geoffrey Cowper discovered during his review of B.C.'s justice system.

Cowper was appointed by Premier Christy Clark in February to consult the legal community and come up with recommendations for dealing with court delays and backlogs. On Thursday, he released a 270-page report, A Criminal Justice System for the 21st Century, emphasizing the need for fair and timely delivery of justice.

Cowper is most concerned about the culture of delay that permeates the criminal justice system and "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."

During his consultations, Cowper looked at a Kelowna pilot project involving 68 cases of domestic violence. According to the report, the administrative judge scheduled the cases for trial within 60 days.

Each trial was scheduled for one hour and the complainant was expected to testify during the hearing. Defence lawyers were told if they couldn't make the hearing, they shouldn't take the case. All but two of the 68 cases were resolved before the first trial appearance, Cowper writes.

Cowper's review found that although 98 per cent of cases are resolved by a guilty plea or stay of proceedings - not a trial - the system is still organized on the assumption that all cases will proceed to trial.

Only a minority of cases are ever assigned a trial date, and only a minority of those cases ever proceed to trial, says his report.

In particular, the provincial court is plagued by a high rate of criminal cases that do not proceed on the first day of trial. Of the 4.5 per cent of charges that have a trial date scheduled, 70 per cent "collapse" at the outset of trial for a variety of reasons, says the report.

About 40 per cent of offenders plead guilty on the first day of trial when witnesses show up, ready to testify against the accused.

The Crown stays about 15 per cent of cases on the first day of trial. Prosecutors, who have scheduled several cases for the same courtroom, reconsider the strength of their case, especially if witnesses fail to appear.

ldickson@timescolonist.com

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