Manitoba courts processing more cases, more quickly, in wake of Jordan decision
Number of cases taking greater than 18 months down 25% year-over-year
Nearly three years since a Supreme Court ruling imposed firm deadlines aimed at expediting Canada's court process, Manitoba appears to be processing more cases more quickly.
Data from Manitoba Justice shows there were 48,808 cases processed in 2017-18, representing an increase just shy of six per cent. Figures from 2016-17 show 46,163 cases were processed.
The number of cases that took greater than 18 months to process declined by 25 per cent last year (1,973) compared with 2016-17 (2,650). That year, almost six per cent of all cases exceeded the 18-month mark; last year, fewer than four per cent took that long.
All of Manitoba's six court centres experienced a bump in the volume of completed cases, with one exception and another pattern in northern Manitoba that stands out.
Portage la Prairie processed three per cent fewer cases last year, while the number in Thompson shot up by 19 per cent, far surpassing volume increases seen in Winnipeg, Brandon, Dauphin and The Pas.
The shift in volume and processing time comes as courts across the country continue to adjust to the Jordan decision. The 2016 Supreme Court ruling set a ceiling of 18 months from the time charges are laid to the end or anticipated end of a trial in provincial courts. The timeline for superior courts is 30 months.
In reaction to the Jordan decision, judges, Crown prosecutors, defence lawyers and the courts generally have taken steps to minimize delays, said Winnipeg lawyer Chris Gamby.
'Pressure on everybody'
"The Jordan decision in 2016 kind of snapped the entire criminal bar out of a haze," said Gamby, spokesperson for the Criminal Defence Lawyers Association of Manitoba.
"That was the intention of that decision anyway, and it put a lot of pressure on everybody to move matters forward expediently."
The longer cases drag on, the more challenging it becomes to resolve them, said Gamby, and that was one of the considerations the Supreme Court took into account. At the end of the day, though, the impetus for pushing through the decision had more to do with upholding rights of an accused, he said.
Section 11.b of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedom states anyone charged with an offence has a right to trial within a reasonable amount of time. The Jordan decision is meant to provide a remedy in cases where this charter right is violated, depending on the circumstances.
While the Jordan decision may help speed things up, there have been fears it could also lead courts to cutting loose people accused of serious offences who have been waiting longer than 18 months.
As of Wednesday, a Manitoba Justice spokesperson said defence lawyers had filed 85 delay motions on criminal code matters since the passing of the Jordan decision. Eighty-two of those have been resolved so far: 15 were stayed, 30 were withdrawn or otherwise resolved, 31 were dismissed by the courts and six successfully led a judge to stay a charge. One of those decisions is currently being appealed.
'Line in the sand shifts'
Some cases continue to exceed the time limit without risk of being tossed, though, because there are many reasons for delays. Once in a while an accused might go missing, or there could be a reasonable justification for an adjournment.
In some cases, the Crown may have to justify a delay before a judge.
"The line in the sand shifts a little bit" if a defence lawyer is responsible for requesting repeated delays that push the case past the deadline, the spokesperson said.
Ultimately defence and prosecutors may be acting more quickly to show their cards in the interest of time, said Gamby.
Crowns might give defence counsel a sense of what kind of deal they'd seek were an accused to enter a guilty plea. Likewise defence lawyers may find themselves engaging in resolution discussions sooner, setting trial dates earlier if they already know that's the direction things are heading rather than letting it linger for an extended period of time, he said.
"Essentially what this is doing is saying we all need to move things forward and in order to do that, the courts, the Crowns and the defence bar have all come together and made some changes to how we do things," he said.
With files from Shane Gibson