British Columbia

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin says judges should speak out about delays

The longest serving Chief Justice at the Supreme court of Canada says fixing our country's trial system is a top priority.

Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin says fixing our country's trial system is a top priority

Beverley McLachlin the first woman to hold the position of Chief Justice. (Roy Grogan/Supreme Court of Canada )

The longest serving Chief Justice at the Supreme court of Canada says fixing our country's trial system is a top priority.

For 17 years, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin has presided over several major landmark decisions in Canadian courts.

McLachlin's rulings have shaped everything from assisted dying to prostitution laws to First Nations title and rights.

Now, she is fighting to reduce delays in court trials as more and more cases are stayed. She says more judges must speak out about the problems they encounter.

"We cannot have trials going on longer, violating constitutional rights in a systematic way, year after year," McLachlin told CBC's guest host of The Early Edition Laura Lynch.

Last summer, the Supreme Court set new rules for how quickly a case should be resolved. The R v Jordan ruling means that provincial court trials must be completed within 18 months and higher level court cases within 30 months. After those time limits the accused parties can apply to have their cases stayed.

"It's a constitutional right that everyone has in Canada to be tried within a reasonable time and that's what the Jordan decision said must be upheld," McLachlin said.

The Supreme Court of Canada set new deadlines for court cases last summer but Beverley McLachlin says the changes cannot be brought in "on the turn of a dime." (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The dwindling number of judges is a big part of the problem, McLachlin explained, and highlighted the current 51 vacancies in courts across the country.

"If we don't have enough judges to hear these cases, then they get put over and delays occur," she said.

Seven criminal cases had to be stayed in British Columbia last year because of unacceptable delays, according to the province's justice minister. Most recently, the three men accused in the shooting death of gangster Jonathan Bacon in Kelowna applied to have the charges against them thrown out because of trial delays.

McLachlin said steps are being taken to reduce delays but the problem cannot be solved overnight.

"We've got to be able to satisfy all of these demands to have a good justice system and it's a struggle to get all the pieces in place," she said. "You can't just do it on the turn of a dime."

Responsibility to speak out

There are limits on what a judge can publicly say, McLachlin said, in order to not enter the political fray or give the appearance of bias — but she said that shouldn't stop judges from speaking out.

"We have to be very careful what we say and how we say it," she said. "But we are part of the justice system and it's important that judges, chief justices particularly, speak out to address issues with that system when they see them."

McLachlin said she feels it is her personal responsibility to highlight problems in the judicial system and encourages other judges to do the same. She is in Vancouver this week presiding over the Order of Canada events.

To hear the full interview with Chief Justice of Canada Beverley McLachlin, click on the audio link below:

With files from The Early Edition.