The federal government should overhaul Canada's Criminal Code to allow reduced sentences or financial compensation as an alternative to tossing out a case when it takes too long to get to trial, a new Senate report recommends.

It's one of 50 recommendations in a 211-page document from the Senate legal and constitutional affairs committee that are aimed at unclogging courts across the country and ensuring accused criminals don't elude justice due to delays.

Sounding the alarm over a "crisis" in Canada's justice system, the committee recommends that the federal government put the proposed alternatives to a stay of proceedings as a reference to the Supreme Court to ensure they meet the constitutional bar.

Senate committee chair Bob Runciman said the system now works at a "snail's pace," and successive governments have failed to act. Delays and adjournments have become routine, and trial times are up even though crime is down, he said.

"These are systemic challenges that require a new mindset for many," he said Wednesday during a news conference to release the report.

Other key recommendations include:

  • The government appoint Superior Court judges on the day a judge retires.
  • The minister of justice must stress the need for judges to improve case management, by imposing deadlines and challenging unnecessary adjournments.
  • The minister of justice should adopt calls to action related to the justice system in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.
  • The federal government should ensure adequate health services and funding to help people with mental health and addiction issues as a crime prevention strategy.

A news release from the committee said "action is desperately needed."

"This crisis must be addressed urgently to maintain trust in the justice system, to give victims and their family the justice they deserve and to keep all Canadians safe.

"People accused of murder and child sexual assault roam our streets as a direct result of court delays — a fixable problem — that are crippling the justice system," it reads.

Runciman said last year's Supreme Court decision that set time limits for trials has shifted the landscape dramatically.

That landmark ruling, known as R. vs. Jordan, imposed a deadline of 18 months for provincial court cases, or 30 months in a Superior Court, to uphold an accused person's charter right to a trial without unreasonable delays.

The decision caused much confusion over interpretation, and triggered hundreds of requests for a stay of criminal proceedings.

'Call to action'

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said she has discussed the idea of alternatives to a stay of proceedings with her provincial counterparts as part of a collaborative effort to revamp the justice system.

"It's something I will look at, I have looked at, and I'm sure we will continue to have conversations with the provinces and territories around this," she said.

Wilson-Raybould called the Jordan ruling a "call to action" and said the government is answering with ongoing initiatives and legal reforms.

Senate committee member George Baker, who was also at the news conference, warned that "tens of thousands" of cases could be tossed out when transitional provisions run out this January. Right now, trials take five to 10 times longer than comparable jurisdictions such as Europe, Australia and New Zealand, he said.

Supreme Court ruling coming Friday

The Senate report was released just two days before the Supreme Court is set to rule on another case about court delays that justices heard in April.

Some legal experts said the Cody ruling could ultimately fine-tune the Jordan decision.

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Last July's Supreme Court ruling in the Jordan case set time limits for criminal trials. (Mike Laanela/CBC)

Representatives from British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec made arguments for greater flexibility with timelines to deal with unforeseen circumstances and complexity to ensure each case is given due diligence.

The Senate committee pointed to two cases where the justice system had let down victims. One of those cases involved a Quebec woman who accused her stepfather of sexual abuse, and waited four years for a trial only to have the accused granted a stay of proceedings.

Judicial vacancies

In another case, a man accused of killing a Montreal man with a machete had his charges stayed due to the Jordan ruling.

The report also recommends that the government appoint Superior Court judges on the day a judge retires.

As of June 1, there were 53 vacancies, according to the website for the Office of the Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs Canada. With more appointments this month, the total number of vacancies stood at 48, with another five announced today.

There were 41 when the committee released its interim report last year.

Conservative justice critic Rob Nicholson is puzzled about why the government is slow to fill the vacancies since it would speed up the courts.

"Get the bench filled and the whole system will work better," he said.

Runciman said the committee and people across the country are frustrated by the continued vacancies that cause delays in the justice system.

'Perplexing' judicial appointment delays

"We're almost two years into this government now. It's perplexing to us, with respect to the snail-like pace with addressing this. We've provided a recommendation going forward so we're not waiting until these folks have departed the scene before we fill a vacancy."

The report also recommends the federal government work with the provinces and territories to implement restorative justice, specialized and alternative courts.

It also calls for investments in technology to modernize and make more efficient criminal proceedings, though the report does not offer a price tag because the costs would be shared by federal and provincial governments.