Scrap zero-tolerance policies for certain crimes to reduce court delays, Ottawa lawyer says

An Ottawa criminal defence lawyer says Crown prosecutors need to do away with zero-tolerance policies for certain crimes, including sexual assault, to avoid unreasonable court delays.

Lawrence Greenspon says collaborative justice programs need more funding

Ottawa defence lawyer Lawrence Greenspon has suggested doing away with zero-tolerance policies for crimes such as sexual assaults and impaired driving to ease the backlog of cases clogging up Canada's legal system. (CBC)

A prominent Ottawa defence lawyer says Crown prosecutor offices across Canada need to do away with zero-tolerance policies for certain cases like domestic and sexual assault to help unclog Canada's justice system, in light of a controversial Supreme Court ruling last summer aimed at limiting trial delays.

"There's zero tolerance on domestic assaults, there are zero tolerance on sexual assaults, there's zero tolerance on impaired. These are the kinds of cases taking up the vast majority of court resources," Lawrence Greenspon, a past president of the Defence Counsel Association of Ottawa, told CBC Radio's The House.

"Maybe they shouldn't be laying charges in the first place."

Greenspon represented former Canadian soldier Adam Picard, the first person in Ontario to have a first-degree murder charge stayed due to unreasonable court delays since the 2016 Supreme Court ruling, commonly known as the Jordan decision.

Picard was accused of killing Fouad Nayel of Ottawa in 2012. His murder charge was stayed on Nov. 15, 2016 – the same week jury selection was about to begin, and more than four years after he was charged. 

The stay of proceedings is under appeal. 

Emergency meeting to be held this week

Greenspon told The House that Canadian police officers have "very little in the way of discretion" when it comes to how they handle domestic and sexual assault cases.

"They're called in, they arrive on the scene, their instructions are charge the man, take him away. When it comes to impaired driving, it's the same thing," he said.

"The whole notion of working out some kind of a deal [or] a plea, that's gone. And it's been gone for 20 years."

The federal government will now be meeting with Canada's provincial and territorial justice ministers next week to discuss how to deal with the fallout caused by the Supreme Court ruling.

Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould announced she's holding a meeting in late April to help co-ordinate solutions around court delays. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

"It's nice that the feds and the provinces are doing the typical Canadian jurisdictional dance but in the meantime Rome is burning," Greenspon said.

"It's burning not because a lack of resources — although certainly more judges, more Crowns, more court staff would be helpful. But there really needs to be a change in the approach to prosecution of criminal cases of Canada."

Instead of having to do bake sales to fund collaborative justice programs … what about getting some proper funding for those?- Lawrence Greenspon

He said money would be well spent funding programs that could keep lesser charges from tying up the court system.

"Instead of having to do bake sales to fund collaborative justice programs across the country, what about getting some proper funding for those?" he said.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould has said she's hoping the provinces and territories can learn from each other when they sit down at the end of next week.

"This isn't about appointing blame in my view. This is about us as attorneys general working collaboratively to ensure we do everything we can to change the culture in our courts," Wilson-Raybould told The House last week.

"Administration of justice is a shared responsibility. Ninety-nine per cent of the criminal cases are before provincial judges."

With files from CBC Ottawa