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Plan outlined to combat court backlog

Oct 25 2012

The B.C. government will adopt several key recommendations of a government-ordered review of its backlogged justice system.

On Monday, Justice Minister Shirley Bond released a White Paper on Justice Reform, Part One, A Modern Transparent Justice System, which outlines 10 steps the government plans to take to deal with court delays, transparency and improving access to the justice system.

"We are beginning these reforms immediately and we will pursue these changes aggressively so the public can be confident that B.C.'s justice system will be fair, accessible and timely when they need it," Bond said in a statement.

Part two of the white paper will be released at a later date and will consider the findings of the B.C. Policing Plan and Missing Women Commission of Inquiry.

In February, Premier Christy Clark appointed lawyer Geoffrey Cowper to consult the legal community and come up with recommendations for dealing with court delays and the growing number of cases stayed. In August, Cowper released a 270-page report, calling for systemic change to meet the public's expectations for the fair and timely delivery of justice.

His recommendations included the appointment of five new provincial court judges to "aggressively reduce" or even eliminate the backlog of cases clogging the court.

On Monday, the government pledged to "create a costing methodology that considers the key cost drivers across the system and determines, in co-operation with the judiciary, the appropriate judicial complement for the provincial court."

The government said it will establish a Justice and Public Safety Council - which is close to one of Cowper's key recommendations - to ensure co-ordination across the justice system. The council will be chaired by the deputy minister of justice and will include members of the executive responsible for civil, family, administrative and criminal justice.

The government also will develop an annual Justice and Public Safety Plan to set goals and report publicly on performance measures. It will hold a regular Justice Summit, beginning in March, with justice-system leaders to discuss the progress and direction of reforms. The summit will deliver recommendations for future action.

The government also has pledged to create better administrative management tools, transform justice-information systems and construct a business-intelligence system that will help measure and report on how the system operates.

Changes will include clarifying and enhancing the authority of the chief judge of the provincial court regarding the administration of the court and enabling the Supreme Court to reassign judges to areas of greatest demand.

"These changes would enable setting the appropriate judicial complement of provincial court judges to be established in a transparent manner and revisited as necessary," says the report.

NDP attorney general critic Leonard Krog called the white paper strong on language, but weak on substance.

"It simply lacks credibility," Krog said. "There appears to be no money attached to this. Even an announcement that they are re-allocating resources from some other area would lend credibility."

The backlog in the provincial court remains unacceptably high, the white paper says. More than 2,500 criminal cases set for trial have been open for 14 months or longer.

The government plans increased use of mediation to resolve child-protection cases, and a review of cases at risk of being stayed due to delays in proceedings.

"This work will begin immediately with respect to cases that have been open for 14 months or longer," says the report.

The government plans to reduce case backlogs and improve efficiency with a new court scheduling system. It is also proposing Crown file ownership, which means the prosecution service will assign files to one prosecutor, who then takes responsibility for a case and sees it through from beginning to end.

Other proposals include expanding criminal duty counsel service and the creation of an early-resolution pilot project.

Finally, the government intends to streamline routine practices and improve the flow of disclosure from prosecutors to those accused of crimes and defence lawyers.

ldickson@timescolonist.com

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