The family of a young mother killed in a hit and run is outraged that the case against the alleged driver is among thousands in B.C. at risk of being thrown out because of a huge court backlog.
"We were told it could possibly get thrown away — because of time delay," said the victim’s father Colin Ogilvie. "That is one of the concerns of the Crown.
"It’s disgusting. It’s absolutely disgusting," said the victim’s husband Dan Reaveley.
Charlene Reaveley, a 30-year-old mother of four young children, was one of two women killed by an alleged drunk driver in a horrific hit and run a year ago. The two were struck while standing at the side of the road at the scene of an earlier minor accident in Coquitlam, B.C.
"My kids don’t have a mom. They have to grow up without a mom," said Reaveley. "I’m not much of a father right now either – so, you know, they are kind of losing two parents."
The Reaveleys had stopped to help Lorraine Cruz, 26, and her boyfriend, Paulo Calimahin, after their vehicle hit the median. As they stood at the side of the road, the driver of an SUV careened right into them and kept going.
Husband watched wife die
Reaveley and Cruz were killed instantly and Calimahin was seriously injured. Reaveley was standing with his wife when she was hit.
"There’s at least six months [afterward] where you pretty much can’t think of anything," he said. "You are pretty much useless."
The accident happened in February 2011, but the trial for the alleged driver, 38-year-old Cory Sater – a convicted criminal who was on probation at the time – won’t happen until at least two years after he was charged.
Case law dictates that when a case drags on more than 18 months without a trial — because of Crown delays or court backlog — it’s in danger of being thrown out before trial because of "unreasonable delay."
Last year, 109 cases were tossed out of B.C. courts — twice as many as in 2010. Many of those involved impaired driving.
More than 2,500 pending cases have now passed that 18-month mark into what lawyers call the "danger zone" of being tossed.
Delay 'too long'
Sater’s lawyer Tony Serka said the case was delayed right from the start, when it took months to get an accident report from the RCMP.
"It was too long," Serka said. "An unreasonable delay [stay of proceedings] is a fundamental right … that may or may not be the question in the Sater case."
He said he hasn’t decided if he will ask the judge to stay the case because of delays but it is possible.
"It’s not the fault of the accused. There are many people who are charged who come to court and have to keep adjourning it over and over. That accumulates. Then you have a full list. A list that judges can’t handle because it’s too much," said Serka.
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"My client would like to have a trial as soon as possible too."
When asked if the victim’s family has reason to be concerned the case may be thrown out, Serka said, "Oh, of course they do. They suffered a terrible loss.
"[The backlog] has never been like this. Not even close to it. The onus is on the government to do something," he added. "It’s very serious. It needs allocation of funds to fix these problems."
The B.C. Crown Counsel Association agreed the crisis is reaching a point where criminal cases involving death will be tossed along with the more minor ones.
"On every case it’s a possibility," said president Samiran Lakshman.
'Frustrating beyond belief'
"There’s not a doubt that the range of cases is getting more serious daily, as to the type of trials that are just getting too long in the tooth…it’s frustrating beyond belief."
In addition to the 2,500 cases now in the "red zone," Lakshman said another 5,000 – including Sater’s – are about to enter that stage, because they are between a year and 18 months old.
"We have a giant wave of [delayed] cases," he said. "There are many sex assaults among those. There are many serious cases among those…and you can’t turn back the clock. The damage has already been done."
Lakshman said the province’s recent appointment of nine new judges is welcome, but he said the provincial court still needs an additional nine to 13 more judges and the justice ministry is facing a $6 million budget cut.
"[Police and Crown] are fighting for justice with one arm tied behind their backs," said Lakshman.
The Canadian Bar Association agreed the backlog is at a serious, crisis level. Sharon Matthews, the president of the B.C. branch, said a key problem is the increasing number of people appearing in court without a lawyer, which slows everything down.
"It’s the worst we’ve seen," said Matthews. She said the courts need more money for legal aid and more staff throughout.
"Human misery is being caused by this. People who have a right to a day in court are sitting in jail waiting for that time to come. People with children and families in crisis are waiting to have those issues resolved and are struggling to do it without representation."
More pressure coming
She said that tax dollars are wasted every time a delayed case gets tossed. She also predicted it will get worse if and when the omnibus federal crime bill becomes law – because people facing mandatory minimum sentences will have no incentive to plead guilty and will choose to go to trial.
"There will be more cases going through the system, and the system can’t handle the volume we have going through now," said Matthews.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark has responded by initiating a review of the court system to get at the root of the problem.
"I share the frustration that every British Columbian feels when we see delays and when we see stays in the justice system. It's not right. It's not working. I'm really frustrated about that," said Clark.
"Case loads are falling, crime is falling, more money has gone into the system, and yet delays and stays are increasing. The thing is, it just doesn't add up."
Charlene Reaveley’s father and husband said they’ve lost faith justice will be served if and when Sater does go to trial.
"I expect him to either get off or maybe get a couple of years, If I’m lucky," said Dan Reaveley. "I don’t expect much. At the end of the day there’s no justice – nothing’s that‘s going to satisfy me – unless, obviously, if my wife was back."
"Something’s broken," said Ogilvie. "It’s just a big huge case of emptiness and missing [her]
and wishing it could be different."