Justice system needs overhaul or more cases will be thrown out: former Manitoba deputy AG

A former Manitoba deputy justice minister says he wants to see major changes to the province’s legal system to streamline court proceedings after a judge dismissed a case involving child sexual assault charges because of lengthy delays.

Case of man accused of sexually assaulting a child thrown out earlier this week due to long delays

The fate of a Winnipeg Police Service constable charged with sexual assault, criminal harassment and breach of trust is now in the hands of a judge. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

A former Manitoba deputy justice minister says he wants to see major changes to streamline court proceedings after a judge dismissed a case involving child sexual assault charges because of lengthy delays.

"We're handling criminal cases in much the same way that we handled them during the era of Charles Dickens. That has to change," said Bruce MacFarlane, once a Manitoba deputy justice minister and deputy attorney general, and currently a criminal law professor at the University of Manitoba.

On Tuesday, the case of a Manitoba man accused of sexually assaulting a young girl was thrown out because it took too long to get to trial. There was a gap of nearly four years between when charges were laid in 2013 and the start date of the trial, which was set to start in April this year.

It's the first criminal case in the province to be dismissed due to delays since a Supreme Court ruling in July 2016 set a deadline of 30 months for cases to be completed from the time charges are laid.

MacFarlane says without major changes to the province's court system, more cases will be at risk of being dismissed for exceeding the 30-month deadline.

"Frankly, I think that we need to do business differently. Now, that's going to take a while," MacFarlane said.

Changes to Criminal Code, professional culture

MacFarlane said he wants to see an "attitudinal change" at every level of the justice system. Up to this point, he said the legal culture has been "that cases just kind of chug along and are at the mercy of everybody's schedule."

"Across the country, I think that there will be cases that are dismissed and there will be local anxiety, if not anger, over the dismissal. And that probably will last for, well, as long as it takes to change the system," MacFarlane said.

"My worry is that to change it in the way I think that we need to change it, it's going to take quite a while. And so in the midst of that change, cases are at risk and further cases will be dismissed."

MacFarlane said Canada needs to swap out its current protocol for court adjournments, which requires the defence, Crown and judge in a case to be present and can fall victim to scheduling issues.

Some countries use a different system of "administrative adjournments," MacFarlane said, that allow an adjournment to be processed on paper and not through an in-person meeting of all the parties.

A switchover to administrative adjournments would require changes to the Criminal Code of Canada, he said, meaning Ottawa would have to be involved.

"All of the players are going to have to change their approach, right up to and including the federal minister of justice," he said.

Lack of attention, lawyer says

David Matas, a Winnipeg lawyer who works with Beyond Borders, said the case that was thrown out highlights flaws in the system that allow police to lose track of files.

In October 2006, a girl went to police about the alleged assaults, which she said started in March 1996, when she was six years old.

However, the file got lost and forgotten in the computer system and wasn't found again until June 2013 by another officer who was searching the police database on the accused regarding a different matter.

At that point, police forward the file to Manitoba Prosecutions and charges were authorized. But the file was lost again and the accused wasn't arrested until 2015, when RCMP found the arrest warrant while following up on an assault complaint filed by the accused.

Matas said the sequence of events shows the case wasn't being given enough attention.

"Of course, that can happen in any office, that files can get lost. But this sort of thing is more likely to happen with a file that is not given high priority or people forget about," he said.

Matas said he's concerned cases that aren't being covered in the media and lack public pressure get forgotten more easily.

"It's easier to forget about these sorts of files when you don't get the media or the public constantly reminding you about it, which is usually the case with sexual abuse files. There needs to be some sort of better internal reminder system so that files just don't go astray in these sorts of cases," he said.