Infuriated judge throws out theft charges after lengthy delay delivering prisoners to court
Nova Scotia judges threaten to stay more charges if sheriffs don't address staffing problem
Mounting frustrations over delays getting people accused of crimes into courtrooms in Dartmouth, N.S., have prompted one provincial court judge to throw out criminal charges and another has warned he is prepared to do the same, or to call police in to help.
Moving an accused person from a holding area in the basement of the Dartmouth courthouse into courtrooms on the second floor should take minutes, but hours can be spent waiting because of a lack of deputy sheriffs. Typically, two sheriff's deputies — responsible for courthouse security — are required to move a single offender.
On Thursday morning, Judge Frank Hoskins said he would use his power to direct Halifax Regional Police to back up deputy sheriffs in order to get the courts running properly.
"I'm not going to delay the court for hours. You don't have enough people, you can't fulfil the requirements, then under that [court officials] act, I'm going to invoke it," Hoskins said from the bench.
Hoskins also said he was prepared to stay criminal charges: "If I have to, I have to."
'Your Honour, I have no staff'
Staying, or throwing out charges, is the unusual step that was taken last week by Judge Daniel MacRury in another Dartmouth courtroom.
MacRury stayed two theft charges against a man and a woman related to shoplifting at a supermarket.
He also warned the supervisor for the deputy sheriffs that he would be charged with contempt of court if he didn't appear in his courtroom within five minutes to explain the delay.
The supervisor explained to MacRury, "Your Honour, I have no staff."
MacRury scolded the supervisor. "They've had an hour and a half to bring them here. The charges have stayed — judicial stay — because the state is not prepared to bring them before the court."
A judicial stay means the charges cannot be reinstated.
MacRury also said more people would walk if the delays continued.
Judge 'grew impatient'
Crown attorney James Giacomantonio was prosecuting the theft charges. He said the judge "grew impatient," and in Giacomantonio's eight years as a lawyer, he's never seen charges stayed for that reason.
Longtime defence lawyer Patrick Atherton said he's glad the judges have put the issue in the spotlight. He said the delays also affect his clients, who deserve to be dealt with fairly and in a timely way.
He said on Thursday he went downstairs to speak to his client, and was told the sheriffs couldn't accommodate a visit because of a lack of staff.
"He'll now be transported to the correctional centre and I will not have had a chance to see him this morning," said Atherton. "It becomes frustrating because they don't know what's going on and they need to instruct counsel."
'We regret the delays'
Justice Department spokesperson Sarah Gillis said "we regret the delays that took place" and steps have been taken to ensure that they don't continue.
"We are working closely with Dartmouth provincial court to ensure adequate staffing levels exist at all times," she said. She said sheriff staff recently hired 23 new employees, and six will be working in the Halifax area. There are plans to recruit and hire more workers later this year, she said.