Fifth case thrown out of court over trial delay in Manitoba

A Manitoba man awaiting trial on firearm charges is free after his lawyer successfully argued his case took too long to go to trial.

Defence lawyer expects to see more cases stayed under 'Jordan decision'

A Manitoba man awaiting trial on firearm charges is free after his lawyer successfully argued his case took too long to go to trial. It's the fifth time a case has been thrown out over delays in Manitoba since a Supreme Court decision ruled provincial cases must go to trial with 18 months. (Bert Savard/CBC)

A Manitoba man who was awaiting trial on firearm charges is free after his lawyer successfully argued his case took too long to go to trial.

The 43-year-old man was charged with uttering threats, pointing a firearm and failing to respect various firearms storage and licensing laws after he allegedly threatened three people in Beausejour, Man. with a gun in July 2016.

His case was set to go to trial next week — more than 22 months after the initial charges were laid — but a judge decided that wait was too long and stayed the case.

The ruling follows the Jordan decision — a July 8, 2016 ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada that set aside drug convictions in a British Columbia case due to unreasonable delay.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court said the old means of determining whether proceedings had taken too long were inadequate. Under the new framework, unreasonable delay was to be presumed if proceedings topped 18 months in provincial court or 30 months in a superior court.

In this case, Judge Lee Ann Martin pointed to communication problems between the Crown and defence as part of the holdup.

The Crown in the case also went on medical leave, and had to be replaced, delaying things even more.

So far in Manitoba five cases have been thrown out over unreasonable delays.

'Under-funding of the system'

Scott Newman is a Winnipeg defence lawyer and spokesperson for the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba.

He says he isn't surprised to see another Manitoba case stayed under the rules.

"Anytime you see a case being tossed for delay, delay is the symptom and it's a symptom of under-funding of the system," he said. "What it tells me … is we don't have enough judges, clerks, sheriffs, defence lawyers, Crown attorneys to process the cases.

"If we're going to arrest people for crimes, we have to make sure that we've got enough flexibility in the system to make sure they get processed quickly."

Winnipeg defence lawyer and spokesperson for the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba, Scott Newman, isn't surprised to see another case stayed in Manitoba over trial delays. (CBC)

Last December a Manitoba couple convicted of sexually assaulting a young girl over a five-year period had their convictions thrown out in a Portage la Prairie courtroom after a judge ruled their case was unreasonably delayed.

The two were charged with sexual assault and two counts of sexual interference each in July 2013. They were convicted in May 2017, nearly four years later, but their convictions were tossed after filing a motion with the court, saying it took too long.

Newman expects to see more cases thrown out over unreasonable delay in Manitoba, especially in rural dockets, where court is held once a week or sometimes once a month.

"You usually only have one judge and one Crown attorney so the volume per person is much greater and the availability for a trial that takes two or three days simply isn't there," he said.

"We have to make sure that justice is uniform across the province and that everybody gets their trial in a reasonable amount of time."

And Newman says the problems facing rural courts will eventually end up causing delays in the city.

"Because when you have to take cases out of these rural communities and bring them into Winnipeg, it impacts the resources and the availability to have trials heard in Winnipeg."

Case under review for appeal

In a statement to CBC News, Manitoba Justice Minister Heather Stefanson said her government "inherited significant challenges in the criminal justice system" which she says have contributed to lengthy court delays.

Last month the government announced a strategy to divert more people away from jail, something Stefanson says will make a difference for trial delays.

Justice Minister Heather Stefanson says the government's criminal justice system modernization strategy will help reduce the delays in Manitoba's court system. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

"Manitobans deserve safer communities and timely access to justice, and our strategy is designed to deliver on those priorities," she said.

Stefanson said the Manitoba Prosecutions Services is reviewing the latest case for appeal.

Numbers from the province show defence lawyers have tried to bring delay motions 76 times in Manitoba since the Supreme Court's ruling was made nearly two years ago.

Of those, seven remain outstanding, 26 were dismissed by the court, 13 were stayed, 25 were resolved or withdrawn by counsel and five were successful and led to charges being stayed.

With files from Jill Coubrough