Government cites progress in reducing justice system backlog

Four years after the B.C. government commissioned a report on overhauling the province's justice system, the report's author says real progress has been made

Increased use of restorative justice and performance metrics for courthouses urged

The author of a government-commissioned report on improving the province's justice system says real progress has been made on dealing with the backlog of cases. (CBC)

Four years after the B.C. government commissioned a report on overhauling the province's justice system, the report's author says real progress has been made.

"We haven't finished the game. We'll probably never finish the game but we've made good work," said lawyer Geoffrey Cowper, who wrote "A Criminal Justice System for the 21st Century" for the provincial government in 2012.

"There's been systemic improvement by every player in the justice system in B.C."

Cowper's 2012 report highlighted the slowness of trials: in the year before he wrote the report, there were 122 criminal cases discontinued because of unreasonable delay and 4,856 that had been pending for more than 18 months. 

This year, the number of discontinued cases is down to 13 and there were just 1,700 cases pending for more than 18 months as of March 31, 2016.  

"The chief judge gave this a high priority in the provincial court, and a number of complementary measures have helped reduce backlogs with some reductions in time to trial. Cases within the system now generally fall within the presumptive standards recently set by the Supreme Court of Canada," wrote Cowper, in an update to the report released Wednesday. 

Cowper also said the government had improved the handling of complex prosecutions and management of major judicial cases, though he cautioned that "most of the significant reforms are, however, still in midstream with only anecdotal results available pending formal evaluation."

Push for more restorative justice  

In his report update, Cowper made several recommendations, including urging senior justice system leaders "actively participate in increasing the public's understanding of restorative justice and its broader use within British Columbia."

Rather than having a victim and offender going through the court and prison systems, restorative justice brings together those involved in the crime — the offender, victim and others in the community.

While used more often in British Columbia in recent years, Cowper believes it hasn't been fully accepted by the criminal justice system.

"B.C. has been an international leader in the development of restorative justice theory and programs, but its widespread use has, in my view, been impaired by the perception by some of its advocates and many justice system participants that it is set against other criminal justice approaches," he wrote.

"There is, however, evidence of growing public acceptance and support for the approaches afforded by restorative justice programs."

Cowper also recommended a refreshed mandate for the Justice and Public Safety Council, along with more transparency on performance metrics for individual courts — something that he recommended in 2012 but has not come to fruition. 

"I'm a big believer in holding ourselves accountable," he said.

"We've had four years for the system to get used to the idea."