Quebec court delays lead to cases against alleged criminals being dropped
PQ justice critic Véronique Hivon worries proceedings against ex-Laval mayor, co-accused could be at risk
There are growing concerns lengthy delays in Quebec's court system will compromise the province's ability to bring to justice suspects charged following investigations by Quebec's anti-corruption unit, UPAC.
The Supreme Court of Canada's ruling last July set new deadlines for completing trials — provincial court cases must now be completed within 18 months, and Superior Court cases must now make it through the trial process within 30 months.
Since then, Quebec courts have received dozens of applications for a stay of proceedings because of cases taking too long to go to trial — 153 in all, as of Nov. 3.
Laval ex-mayor's trial to proceed?
On Monday, Parti Québécois justice critic Véronique Hivon made a formal appeal to Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée to let the public know the state of the system.
"They have to tell us how many people who are awaiting trial are at risk of being released because of this situation," said Hivon.
She said the current state of court delays could impact legal proceedings against the former mayor of Laval, Gilles Vaillancourt and his 33 remaining co-accused.
Vaillancourt and 36 others were arrested in May 2013 under a UPAC operation called "Project Honorer."
They are alleged to have participated in a kickback scheme involving municipal contracts. Vaillancourt and two of Laval's former senior administrators are also charged with gangsterism.
They're due back in court for a case management hearing on Dec. 12. Vaillancourt's trial, expected to last four to six months, has tentatively been set for next fall.
Hells Angels member released due to delay
Last Thursday, businessman Luigi Coretti, who was facing charges of fraud and forgery in connection with the accounting operations of his security agency,was the latest to have those charges dropped.
Coretti had waited since 2012 for his case to go to trial.
Earlier this month, four alleged drug traffickers, including Richard "Bob" Hudon, one of the founding members of the Quebec Hells Angels, obtained a stay of proceedings at the Quebec City courthouse.
They had waited more than 60 months for a trial date on drug-related charges.
About a week after that, a Quebec Court judge in Joliette threw out the case of contractor Christian Blanchet, who was arrested on fraud, breach of trust and conspiracy charges, because of unreasonable court delays.
More funding, cracking down on abuse
Last April, a former chief justice of the Quebec Superior Court, François Rolland, told a Senate committee it would soon be impossible to get a Quebec Superior Court date in Montreal before 2017.
He said there were a few dates available in 2018, and dates in 2019 are already being booked, adding that the state of affairs is similar in Quebec City.
In early October, three months after the Supreme Court ruling imposing new time limits, Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée announced she and the province's top judges and lawyers had worked out a plan to speed up access to the courts.
However, Claudie Prémont, president of the Quebec Bar Association, said that commitment isn't being matched by increased funding.
"If you compare us with the rest of Canada, there is a clear lack of resources," Prémont told CBC News.
She said that the justice department's budget is less than one per cent of the province's overall spending.
Prémont added that the number of judges hasn't increased proportionally with Quebec's population.
"It's clear that brings about long-term problems," she said.
Beyond a need for more resources, Prémont said changes are being made in the way lawyers handle cases to ensure the justice system doesn't get congested.
She said lawyers are being offered training to help them conduct mediation sessions and other kinds of conflict resolutions so some cases are resolved before ending up in court.
Prémont added that there is now "zero tolerance" for lawyers abusing procedure — like filing motions repeatedly to delay proceedings and increase lawyers' bills.
with files from Jonathan Montpetit