Nova Scotia

N.S. prosecutors encouraged to offer plea bargains for minor crimes as cases pile up

Crown attorneys in Nova Scotia are trying to streamline the length of time it takes to get a criminal trial by offering plea bargains in cases of low-severity crimes.

A new pilot program is an effort to cut down on a backlog of criminal cases tying up courtrooms

The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia building in Halifax. All courts in Canada are under pressure to speed up lengthy wait times for trials. (Robert Short/CBC)

Crown attorneys in Nova Scotia are trying to streamline the length of time it takes to get a criminal trial by offering plea bargains for low-severity and minor crimes. 

"This is no panacea, but it is a step which we feel will achieve a result," said Martin Herschorn, director of the province's Public Prosecutions Service.

A working group of lawyers and judges met over six months and developed a new one-page document designed for use by Crown attorneys.

It offers the accused the option to plead guilty before a date chosen by the Crown. If the accused pleads guilty, the form shows what the Crown would recommend as a sentence. 

Crown attorneys will be encouraged to use this form for minor criminal cases. (Shaina Luck)

Herschorn said in order to give the defendant an incentive to plead guilty, the Crown's recommended sentence would be on the lighter end of the spectrum. 

Program targets minor offences

"If there is to be an early resolution to the matter, the incentive will be offered in terms of the lower end of the range of sentencings which the courts have sanctioned for particular offences," he said.

"But that will be time-limited — and there's the incentive." 

The program started being piloted in Halifax and Dartmouth on Feb. 7, and all Crown attorneys are being encouraged to use it for less complicated cases such as minor property offences, low level assaults, and first offence breathalyzer offences. 

In a memo dated Feb. 7, Pamela Williams, the chief judge of the provincial and family courts, sent a copy of the form to all criminal lawyers in the province.

"Any offer that is made is time-sensitive and will not be offered later in the proceedings," the memo stated. 

Results will be tracked, studied

Herschorn was unsure if any cases have already been resolved using the new offer, but he said the Public Prosecution Service would track and study the results. 

The form is not intended for cases that involve sexual crimes, significant property loss or significant violence. 

However, Herschorn didn't rule out expanding the form to include offences other than minor crimes down the road.

"It may be suitable for use in other types of more serious offences, what are termed mid-range offences," said Herschorn.

"That would be break and enters into businesses or dwellings, or perhaps more serious assaults when there may have been some bodily harm inflicted."

Pressure to get to trial sooner

All courts in Canada have been under significant pressure to speed up the time from charges laid to the completion of trial. 

A Supreme Court of Canada decision in 2016 laid down a maximum of 18 months for a case in a provincial court trial. That can be extended to 30 months if there is a preliminary inquiry. Superior court cases can be no longer than 30 months. 

Some Nova Scotia cases have already been stayed or had charges withdrawn because they could not be completed within the time limits. 

The president of the Nova Scotia Crown Attorneys' Association has said the problem is workload, and that the province must hire 20 new prosecutors in order to get the backlog of cases under control. 


Shaina Luck


Shaina Luck is an investigative reporter with CBC Nova Scotia. She has worked with local and network programs including The National and The Fifth Estate. Email: