British Columbia·In Depth

'This is where we deal with them': A day in the life of B.C.'s busiest court

Car theft, assault, breach of probation: the kinds of cases that take up the bulk of time in Surrey's courtroom may never make the headlines, but they provide an insight into the issues that drive concerns over community safety.

Issues of mental health and addiction drive the cases that make Surrey's courthouse B.C.'s busiest

Surrey's provincial courthouse is the busiest in British Columbia. Cases featuring addictions and mental illness feature prominently. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

Within the next two decades, Surrey is poised to overtake Vancouver as B.C.'s biggest city. The last municipal election showed a desire for change, fuelled in part by lingering concerns about public safety, the future of the RCMP and the direction of growth. This week, we asked reporter Jason Proctor to spend time at Surrey's courthouse to see how the cases heard inside reflect the concerns of the larger community.

It's 3 p.m. and the sullen man in the prisoner's dock is listening as a Crown lawyer reads out his criminal record.

The 27-year-old has 17 convictions to his name. All of them for offences relating to the theft of motor vehicles. Now police are looking to add a stolen Acura Integra to that list.

Seasoned defence lawyer Daniel Redekopp told us to check out this courtroom — 101 — in the afternoon if we wanted to witness the real action at Surrey's courthouse.

This is where bail hearings for newly charged offenders happen. And in the space of 90 minutes or so, we witness a gamut of the files that may never make the headlines but do account for the bread and butter of the work that goes on here.

'He didn't care how much it cost the system'

An elderly woman charged with assault insists she's being framed by RCMP. Another accused car thief is found with a bundle of credit cards and stolen mail.

And then there's the homeless man accused of assaulting another homeless man in McDonald's.

"Police tried to release him," a Crown counsel tells the judge. "He said he wouldn't come to court … would hunt down the victim and assault him … and he didn't care how much it cost the system."

Defence lawyer Daniel Redekopp has been practising in Surrey for more than two decades. He says his primary job is to help his clients navigate the legal system to get the help they need. ( Christian Amundson/CBC)

It goes without saying Surrey is a lot more than crime, and that a very small percentage of the population — thankfully — will ever find themselves a part of what happens here.

But if you're going to talk about community safety and the reality of the perceptions people have about crime in Surrey, this courthouse is the place to do it.

Redekopp was called to the bar in 1993 and practices mostly out of Surrey. He also lives in the community, which he says he doesn't think is more susceptible to crime than any other part of the Lower Mainland.

"People who are having trouble in their lives, this is where we deal with them," Redekopp explains. "And especially when it comes to issues — mental health issues, addiction issues. These are by far the individuals that find themselves most often coming into these doors as accused."

'They're here to plead guilty'

The alleged car thief's lawyer says his client has longstanding problems with drugs and alcohol. His brother died a couple of years ago as a result of an opioid addiction.

A young woman wearing a stained singlet and sweat pants appears dazed as a charge of repeatedly stealing from Superstore is read into the record.

And the woman who claims RCMP are out to get her asks the judge how she can arrange for federal prosecutors to protect her.

Problems with drugs and alcohol feature prominently in the regular stream of cases that make Surrey's provincial court the province's busiest. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Redekopp says the oldest client he's ever had was 84. He says most of his time is spent helping people navigate a system that can appear confusing and cold.

"Most of the people that come in here, I would say a good 80 to 90 per cent, they're here to plead guilty," he says.

"My role in that is to try to assist them in presenting themselves before a judge to get the best result. That usually means trying to find them counselling, getting them set up with the right doctor."

Redekopp says many offenders with mental health issues have a hard time understanding what is happening to them.

"I assist them with explaining: 'This is why you're here,'" he says. "This is what we need to do to assist you. These are the things to help get the best result for you."

Even so, recovery spaces are a valuable commodity for anyone trying to kick an addiction. And Redekopp says they're especially scarce for women.

'Not ... palatable for many in our community'

Ask anyone about the Surrey courthouse, and one of the first things you'll likely hear is that it's the busiest in the province, if not one of the busiest in the country.

The court has the highest criminal caseload in B.C. and the second highest family and civil caseloads.

According to prosecution service data, new adult criminal cases in Surrey jumped from 7,970 in 2012 to 9,021 in 2016. And that's to say nothing of the youth files, traffic tickets, bylaw offences and family custody disputes.

Surrey's provincial court has the highest criminal caseload in Canada and the second highest caseloads of family and civil files. (CBC)

The physical building is under expansion, but inevitably, that kind of volume, combined with a Supreme Court of Canada decision that sets a drop dead time on cases for completion, has led to a focus on delay.

Just last fall, one judge stayed sexual assault proceedings against a Surrey man.

"This conclusion will not be palatable for many in our community," Judge Deanne Gaffar concluded.

But as Gaffar noted, citing another case: "timely justice is one of the hallmarks of a free and democratic society."

Watching just a handful of cases inch along, it's easy to see how the system can get bogged down.

As the judge in Courtroom 101 grants bail on the homeless man`s assault charge, she ponders how to order one homeless man to avoid another, since they both frequent the same shelters.

"Even if I arrive at the shelter first," the accused asks. "Then I have to leave and he gets to stay there?"

The case of the scooter scofflaw

In another courtroom, a judge painstakingly explains the facts of an order to a man who speaks very little English.

A little while later, the same judge finds himself guiding a self-represented defendant through a brief trial on a charge of driving while prohibited. The man was caught driving a 50cc scooter which he claims he thought fell under the same rules as an electric bike.

It's the kind of case that doesn't seem like it should require a ton of attention and resources, but a Crown has been assigned to prosecute, two RCMP officers have been called in to testify and the judge has to ensure that the defendant understands every step of the judicial process.

At one point, he ends up calling himself as a witness. It doesn't go well.

But at least he'll walk out a free man — if $500 poorer and banned for driving for at least another year.

That's more than can be said for the accused car thief in 101: he's headed back to the cells.

As the judge wraps up the trial for the self-represented scooter scofflaw, he makes a point of saying that while the man may have been honest in his beliefs, he still committed a crime.

He might as well be speaking to any of the defendants who come here looking for justice.

"You've pointed out some things that maybe don't make sense to people," the judge says. "But whether or not the law makes sense to everybody is a different question then what is actually the law."

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.