Ontario tries to stop criminal charges being stayed by trial delays
Ontario Crown Attorneys Association estimates 6,000 criminal cases could see charges stayed or withdrawn
Ontario's ministry of the attorney general is reviewing thousands of criminal charges that could be stayed or withdrawn because cases are taking too long to get to trial, but Crown attorneys say the government had made the situation worse.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled last July in what is known as the Jordan decision that a reasonable delay to trial is 18 months for provincial cases and 30 months for cases before the superior court.
- Crown to appeal stay in Adam Picard's murder trial
- Ottawa judge stays 1st-degree murder charge over trial delay
- Legal experts raise alarm over court delays after murder trial halted
Last week, a first-degree murder charge against former Canadian Forces member Adam Picard was stayed on the grounds that his right to a speedy trial had been violated, four years after the charge was laid in Ottawa. On Friday, the attorney general's office announced it would appeal the ruling.
The Ontario Crown Attorneys Association estimates there are about 6,000 criminal cases that could see charges stayed or withdrawn, and it blames a shortage of judges, prosecutors and court space.
Association president Kate Matthews said the group has been raising the alarm about the need for more resources in Crown attorney's offices for years, calling a crisis inevitable.
"Anyone working in the criminal justice system could see 'Jordan' coming, and yet the government did nothing with respect to the key reasons behind it," Matthews wrote in an open letter. "In the last few years, the government has effectively reduced the number of assistant Crown attorneys in trial offices."
'Worst record in the country'
Attorney General Yasir Naqvi said cases can be stayed or withdrawn after the accused completes an alternative or restorative justice program, like a domestic violence or drug treatment program, or if the accused enters a guilty plea or agrees to another resolution like a peace bond.
Naqvi said his officials are examining cases to make sure other serious charges aren't stayed or withdrawn because of delays in meeting the Supreme Court's deadline.
"Of course we need to work on the cases that are imminent, in the system right now, but I want to make sure to use this decision as an opportunity to bring reforms to the system so that justice is delivered on time, without any unreasonable delays," he said.
Progressive Conservative justice critic Randy Hillier said about 43 per cent of criminal cases in Ontario are stayed or withdrawn before trial.
"Ontario is without equal in its failings of the administration of justice," said Hillier. "We have the worst record in the country."
Ontario Superior Court Justice Julianne Parfett attributed her decision to stay the proceedings against Picard "to the Crown's heavy caseload and the Crown's refusal to expedite the trial," added Hillier.
"The justice system is either keeping innocent people behind bars or allowing criminals to walk free," he said. "It doesn't take a legal expert to see that our justice system is acting in the manner that frustrates and obstructs justice while also failing to protect society from dangerous offenders."
Delays across Ontario
Naqvi said the Supreme Court's Jordan decision imposed new responsibilities on governments across the country.
"They basically have asked all levels of government and all of the partners within the criminal justice system to make sure the trials are getting done in a reasonable period of time," he said.
"We have been actively and diligently working on that, doing better case management."
The problems with delays are in courts across Ontario, added Naqvi.
"Some courthouses are just busier than others, and we're working on all fronts and putting resources where they're needed to make sure the cases are moving through the system."
Matthews said the Crown attorneys welcome any effective efficiencies.
"However, those steps will be mere Band-Aids if the government does not take meaningful, significant and immediate steps to increase the number of assistant Crown attorneys," she said.