Ontario judges stayed 46 cases due to court delays in 2016

Judges stayed an average of nearly 10 cases per month in the first five months following a landmark Supreme Court of Canada ruling last year, according to documents obtained through a freedom of information request.

Courthouses in Toronto, Ottawa recorded most stayed cases after Supreme Court ruling

Picketers gathered outside the Ottawa courthouse to protest a judge's decision to stay a charge of first-degree murder because the case took too long to get to trial. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

Last November, a Superior Court judge apologized for the justice system failing an Ottawa murder victim's family and the accused who waited four years for his trial to get started.

Former Canadian Forces soldier Adam Picard had his first-degree murder charge stayed after Justice Julianne Parfett ruled the length of delay in getting his case started violated his constitutional right to a speedy trial. That ruling is under appeal.

Newly released statistics help shed light on how many more times that has happened in Ontario courtrooms.

There have been 46 cases tossed out due to court delays in Ontario from July 9 to Dec. 31, 2016, according to statistics obtained through a freedom of information request. The data from the Ministry of the Attorney General covers cases that were stayed in the first five months since a landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision known as the Jordan decision that set reasonable time limits for trials to be completed.

Cases that exceed 18 months in provincial court — or 30 months in Superior Court — are "presumptively unreasonable," according to the ruling. Charges must be stayed unless the Crown can prove the delays were caused by unforeseen or unavoidable circumstances. 

The ministry's numbers include cases that have been stayed in provincial and Superior Court. They point to an average of nearly 10 cases per month in Ontario that are tossed out due to court delays in the five-month period.

In total, there were 240 applications from lawyers seeking stays for unreasonable delay. Approximately one in five of those applications were granted, the data shows. 

The ministry said the numbers are an estimate based on internal Crown reporting.

View a graphic of the data here.

Ottawa, Toronto had highest numbers of stayed cases

The courthouse with the highest number of cases stayed due to court delays, 12, is College Park in Toronto. Another six cases in the City of Toronto were also stayed during the same period.

The Ottawa courthouse recorded five stayed cases last year, as did the courthouses in Brampton and Newmarket.

The numbers are not all that surprising to Kate Matthews, president of the Ontario Crown Attorneys Association, and she said they are expected to keep growing because courthouses in the province continue to be overworked and under-resourced.

"Any case at all that gets stayed for delay is a failure of the criminal justice system, so my initial thought is that [the 46 cases] is an indication of failure," Matthews said. 

"I think it's inevitable. We are really only seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of the effect of Jordan."

We are really only seeing the tip of the iceberg in terms of the effect of Jordan.- Kate Matthews 

The four other cases stayed last year in Ottawa include two involving assault causing bodily harm, one case of fraud and one robbery, a spokeswoman for the attorney general said in an email to CBC News.

Some 6,000 criminal cases could be stayed

The fallout from the Jordan decision in Ottawa has been the focus of multiple media reports over the last several months.

The high-profile Picard case marked the first time in Ontario that a first-degree murder charge has been stayed since the top court ruling. This year, cases that have been tossed out because of delays include one involving a teenager accused of sexually assaulting a three-year-old girl. In another case, a 20-year-old father accused of breaking his infant son's ankles also had his case stayed by a judge. 

"Ottawa is an office which has often been identified by us as one that has been under-resourced for some time and has felt a lot of the pressures from the Jordan decision. We would have expected that that office would be seeing some of those numbers," Matthews said.

The Ontario Crown Attorneys Association has estimated that last summer's ruling could eventually lead to about 6,000 criminal cases being stayed or withdrawn.

In an attempt to save trials from falling through the cracks, Attorney General Yasir Naqvi announced more Crown attorneys and judges will be hired. But Matthews said they are not going to be enough to save the cases that are already in jeopardy.

Crown attorneys are already being told to double their efforts in finding earlier dates for preliminary inquiries and other procedural matters, she added.

'We've reached a crisis'

Ottawa defence lawyer Anne London-Weinstein said the criminal justice system is in need of sytemic reform. (CBC)

Anne London-Weinstein, president of the Defence Counsel Association of Ottawa, said she has a client whose case is now in "delay territory."

"This is not a new problem," she said in an interview. "The chronic underfunding of the system has been going on for a number of years and now we've reached a crisis point."

London-Weinstein said the lack of available court space, inadequate legal aid funding, and a shortage of Crown attorneys are all to blame for a growing number of stayed charges in Ontario.

"There has to be a systemic and complete reform of the criminal justice system," she said.

In an email statement to CBC, Naqvi acknowledged the cases stayed have caused "some real emotional pain, and community anger."

"I recognize the devastating impact that stayed cases are having on the accused, victims and witnesses, their families, and communities," the statement says. "I want to assure the residents of Ottawa and all Ontarians that we are doing everything we can and have taken concrete action.

"We are appointing 13 more judges to the Ontario Court of Justice, hiring 32 assistant Crown attorneys, providing funding to Legal Aid Ontario for 16 duty counsel, and hiring 26 new court staff. Our plan will mean faster justice for families, for victims, for the accused, and safer communities."