Ottawa to get 2 judges, bail reforms as province tries to speed up legal system

Ottawa will be getting two new judges, a Crown attorney embedded within the Ottawa Police Service and up to 20 "bail beds" in 2017 as part of a plan to improve and expedite the delivery of justice in eastern Ontario.

Changes come 6 months after Supreme Court unveiled strict trial deadlines

Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi shares details of how the province's plan to reduce trial delays will roll out in eastern Ontario during a press conference Jan. 25, 2017, at Ottawa Police Service headquarters. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC)

Ottawa will be getting two new judges, a Crown attorney embedded within the Ottawa Police Service and up to 20 "bail beds" in 2017 as part of a plan to improve and expedite the delivery of justice in eastern Ontario.

The new measures were announced Wednesday morning by Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi at a press conference at Ottawa police headquarters. It's the local portion of Ontario-wide plans announced in December 2016.

The hirings and changes come six months after the Supreme Court of Canada set strict deadlines for how long it could take cases to come to trial in a ruling that's come to be known as the Jordan decision.

"The Jordan decision really changes the way we have to do things," Naqvi said Wednesday. "The alarm they sounded was very loud and clear. And that's why we're taking action immediately."

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has estimated that last summer's ruling could eventually lead to about 6,000 criminal cases being stayed or withdrawn.

Since that decision, Ottawa judges have stayed or withdrawn charges in at least two cases due to court delays — in one instance, setting free a man accused of murder.

Earlier Wednesday, Ottawa lawyer Joshua Clarke told CBC News he was preparing his legal arguments for why the case of a Barrhaven teen accused of calling in at least 30 fake emergencies to police forces across Canada should be thrown out. 

The teen was arrested in 2014 when he was 16 years old, and still hasn't received a decision in his case.

Bail changes on the way

Naqvi said that to reduce the backlog of cases in eastern Ontario, the province will also:

  • Assign one new Crown attorney to the Ottawa courthouse whose job will be specifically to review cases as to whether they could be eligible for bail.
  • Hire a duty counsel, also assigned to the local courthouse, who will serve as a "bail co-ordinator" and help expedite the entire bail process.
  • Assign a lawyer to the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre who will offer prisoners legal advice, facilitate applications for legal aid certificates and prepare them for bail hearings.
  • Expand the John Howard Society's bail verification and supervision program to the courthouses in Perth, Pembroke and L'Orignal, while also offering enhanced services in Ottawa on weekends and statutory holidays.
  • Add up to 20 new "bail beds" that will give low-risk offenders a place to stay in the community while awaiting trial.

The Ontario-wide reforms will cost more than $25 million per year, with the province still determining some of the precise local costs, a ministry spokesperson told CBC News.

The reforms are a "game changer" for correctional services in eastern Ontario, particularly the bail bed initiative, said Tyler Fainstat, executive director of the John Howard Society of Ottawa.

Providing low-risk offenders with a safe, supervised home while out on bail will ensure those who need help with addictions or mental health issues will get support, said Fainstat — all at "a fraction" of the cost of keeping them incarcerated.

"The greatest barrier to getting out on bail is housing," Fainstat said. "And rightly so. This is what the court wants to know: where is this person going to reside, and will we be able to find them when we need to find them?"

Ottawa defence lawyer Anne London-Weinstein said she was 'uncharacteristically jubilant and optimistic' about the reforms announced Wednesday. (CBC)

13 judges being appointed in Ontario

The two new provincial judges are among 13 to be appointed across Ontario, in addition to the hiring of 32 more assistant Crown attorneys, 16 duty counsel and 26 court staff province-wide.

As for the Crown attorney embedded within the Ottawa Police Service, their role will be to offer advice to police on bail matters, Naqvi said, and work to find alternatives to criminal charges for low-risk, vulnerable offenders.

Anne London-Weinstein, a defence lawyer and president of the Defence Counsel Association of Ottawa, said it was unlikely that new position would lead to an "inappropriate relationship" between the Crown and police. 

"Whoever they're going to appoint to that position is going to be a senior person who's going to work in a professional capacity," said London-Weinstein.

"So I think it may help in terms of reinforcing that idea you can exercise discretion, make a decision, and release somebody with the appropriate conditions ... without sending them down to bail court."

Overall, London-Weinstein said she heartily agreed with the new measures, many of which should be implemented by mid-2017.

"All of them make me uncharacteristically jubilant and optimistic — which for a criminal defence lawyer, in our system, is relatively rare."