British Columbia

B.C. courts are in crisis, say critics

The government's appointment of five new provincial court judges does nothing to solve the serious crisis in British Columbia's court, critics say.

Five new judges won't be enough help

The government's appointment of five new provincial court judges does nothing to solve the serious crisis in British Columbia's court, critics say.

Criminals are going free and families are waiting too long to get to trial, said Samiran Lakshman, the president of the B.C. Crown Counsel Association.

Their voices join the chorus of provincial court judges who have complained within their rulings as they throw out yet another case because of long court delays.

The latest additions bring the number of provincial court judges to 130.1 full-time equivalent judges working around the province, more than a dozen fewer than the number of judges sitting in 2005.

The office of the chief provincial court judge couldn't say how many cases are being dropped because of lack of resources, but a search on the provincial court website shows dozens thrown out over the last six years because the accused waited too long for trial.

Lakshman said there are over 2,100 cases in provincial court that are over 18 months old, the point where judges start to seriously consider applications over the issue of delay.

"Police officers [are] stacked deep in the courthouse halls, civilians, victims [are] stacked tall in the courthouse halls, taking time off work, only to hear the case has been thrown out of court."

In the most recent example, where assault charges were tossed out against two brothers, Associate Chief Judge Michael Brecknell said 22 months getting the men to trial was too long.

Without more resources Brecknell said the court could be overwhelmed with applications to have charges stayed.

"The court constantly strives to serve the public interest in the administration of justice in the face of dwindling resources and a burgeoning case load," Brecknell wrote. "Only government can re-establish the necessary and appropriate level of judicial and support resources."

'You might get lucky'

In one of the more high-profile stays because of trial delays, charges against accused puppy killer Cody Wellard were dropped.

Wellard was charged with shooting a boy's puppy on Quadra Island, B.C., in September 2008. A series of court delays resulted in the charges being dropped in February this year.

Attorney General Barry Penner didn't return a request for an interview.

Leonard Krog, New Democrat Opposition critic for the attorney general, said the lack of court resources is hard on everyone trying to bring criminals to justice.

"The message it sends to criminals is, you know what, you might get lucky."

Provincial court Judge Darrell O'Byrne noted the overwhelming court delays as he issued a stay on an impaired-driving charge in October.

"New cases per judge are also increasing. There are in excess of 30,000 traffic tickets awaiting trial dates."

Krog, a lawyer, said it's no secret that if people dispute their alleged crime, there's a good chance they'll get off.

"Because just the pretence of fighting will be sufficient to get you into the system and get you the delay and you're off."

A September 2010 report from provincial court Chief Judge Thomas Crabtree titled Justice Delayed said five provincial court judges would be retiring in 2011.

Lakshman said the government's announcement of five new judges also doesn't appear to address related needs, such as increasing the number of Crown lawyers, sheriffs, and court staff.

Dean Purdy of the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union said over the last few years over 100 sheriffs have been lost through attrition and a government hiring freeze and another 50 will need to be hired at least.

B.C. is the only province since 2005 that has reduced the number of provincial court judges, said Azool Jaffer-Jeraj, the president of B.C.'s Trial Lawyers Association.

"When you take all of this together, it's a court system that is severely impaired and cannot deal with the demands placed upon it," he said.

Adding these five judges doesn't deal with the backlog issue which grows larger everyday, Jaffer-Jeraj said.

"On the family side it's a huge issue because if people want to have access to their children or on the other side, if they need access to child support, these matters are all held off."

The chief judge of the B.C. provincial court was unavailable for comment on Monday.