Top judges pitch ways to unplug Manitoba court backlog
Judges say children, families should spend less time in court, more time with social workers, counsellors
Manitoba's top judges held a rare news conference Friday to advocate for change in the province's often sluggish justice system.
We're here saying publicly that things have to change.- Chief Justice Richard Chartier
Chief Justice Richard Chartier, Chief Justice Glenn Joyal and Chief Judge Ken Champagne said court backlogs, which can stretch from months to years before a case gets to trial, are unacceptable.
"We're here saying publicly that ... things have to change," said Chartier.
The judges are calling for the reform of the Family Court system, saying children are among those who pay the biggest price due to delays.
They want fewer lawyers arguing issues such as family disputes and custody battles and more social workers and counsellors solving problems.
"I do believe that the participants in the process, the families and the communities, are asking us to do this," Champagne said. "Because the system isn't working as well as it should."
The judges are also looking at speeding up criminal cases, including scheduling, and targeting preliminary inquiries, during which lawyers hear witnesses before the trial begins.
They said after an arrest, it can take eight months to book a trial. But a preliminary inquiry and other delays can tack on up to three years before the accused sees the inside of a courtroom.
The families and the communities are asking us to do this. Because the system isn't working as well as it should.- Chief Judge Ken Champagne
Darren Sawchuk, president of the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association (Manitoba), applauded the three for making their concerns and their proposals public. But he also has his concerns.
"Having the witness testify at the preliminary hearing is a critical part of ensuring, down the road, a fair trial," he said. "And that's something I'm sure the court would not want to give up on."
Sawchuk said what would speed up the system, from the delivery of forensic evidence and legal aid to transcription services, is money.
Joyal conceded that funding is always a factor, but he said the time to act is overdue.
"We can't wait for all of the perfect conditions to be put in place, including funding, before we lay down our stakes," he said. "What we are doing here is we are laying some stakes."