A federal court judge says Canada's prison system is breaking the law by failing to deal with inmate grievances in a timely fashion.

In a newly released ruling, Madame Justice Anne Mactavish writes that the ongoing backlog in the inmate grievance system is contributing to growing tensions and violence within federal prisons. She ordered a judicial review and that a senior official with the Correctional Service of Canada should review the matter.

The case arose after an inmate in British Columbia, Michael Spidal, filed a grievance within the prison system, alleging that prison officials were not adhering to the law by refusing to deal with inmate complaints in a "fair and expeditious" manner in accordance with the Corrections and Conditional Release Act, which governs federal prisons.

Spidal had filed several grievances in the past two years but prison officials continually delayed responding to them. According to timelines specified in the act, officials are expected to respond fully and fairly to inmate complaints within either 15 or 25 days, depending on the issue. Extensions can be granted but only in exceptional cases.

Mactavish reviewed hundreds of pages of documents put forward by Spidal, who represented himself in Federal Court, and said they showed a systemic problem of delayed and incomplete responses to inmate concerns. In many cases, the only excuse given for the delay was a growing backlog of complaints.

The court decision comes as no surprise to Howard Sapers, Canada’s correctional investigator. He has raised concerns about what he calls the "dysfunctional" grievance system for years. And he says things are getting worse as Canadian prisons have become overcrowded with rising tensions and violence.

"My office has been raising these concerns for over 30 years," Sapers told CBC News. "Whenever it suits them, they just move the timeframe forward. But now, they can’t even meet their own administrative rules in terms of timely responses to serious offender complaints."

Complaints system acts as 'release valve'

Federal corrections officials say many of the tens of thousands of complaints they receive each year are frivolous. Earlier this year, the government moved to crack down on inmates who file such complaints.

But Sapers says such complaints can be dealt with in other ways and he insists that only a fraction of the thousands of complaints filed by inmates fit that description.

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Howard Sapers, speaking during a news conference in 2009, says a properly functioning complaints system benefits inmates and the public. (Tom Hanson/Canadian Press)

Instead, he says many fall into the category of serious and systemic concerns that violate human rights and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

"These are issues that occur again and again and again. Staff harassment, inappropriate placement in security levels, inappropriate placement in segregation, arbitrary decisions outside of policy that limit family contacts and family visits, very serious concerns including issues of liberty and human rights," Sapers said. "Everything happens behind closed doors and you have to have a way to balance that total authority."

Catherine Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society of Canada, says a good prison grievance system also acts as a "release valve."

"This is a time to be really careful and cautious to make sure as much pressure can be removed from the system as possible," she said.

"It gives people a sense that there is another source of complaint and it reduces some of the grievances and long-standing grievances that can really fester and cause problems in a prison system," she said.

Sapers says a working grievance system benefits staff and inmates alike by ensuring that rules and policies are followed. He says it also avoids added costs because inmates, such as Spidal, do not have to resort to the court system to have their concerns heard.

And he adds that as long as Correctional Service Canada officials are not responding to complaints in a timely fashion, there can be little faith in the system from inmates and the public.

"At this point, you simply cannot trust that CSC has done the job it was supposed to do," he said.

Officials with the correctional service were asked to comment on the ruling but said Tuesday evening they were unable to provide a statement at that time.