Screening of police charges could help clear crowded courts, study says

Nearly half of all criminal charges in Ontario are withdrawn or tossed out before trial, according to new research, prompting calls for reforms to how charges are laid.

Problem 'especially pronounced' in Ontario, where nearly half of charges laid are withdrawn

Provinces where Crown attorneys screen charges before they are laid have lower caseloads in the court system and have fewer cases withdrawn than in provinces such as Ontario, where police have the final say. (Laura MacDonald/CBC)

Nearly half of all criminal charges in Ontario are withdrawn or tossed out before trial, a higher rate than anywhere else in Canada. 

The finding comes in a new report that urges reform of the way charges are laid in the province, with the aim of relieving an overcrowded court system.

Using data from Statistics Canada, the study finds significantly heavier caseloads in the court systems of provinces such as Ontario — where police lay charges — versus British Columbia, Quebec and New Brunswick, where Crown attorneys screen charges before they are laid to decide whether there's a reasonable chance of conviction. 

"Large numbers of gratuitous charges waste massive amounts of money and time," writes criminologist Christopher Williams in the report

Waste, inefficiency and coercion

The problems are "especially pronounced in Ontario," says Williams. "Charging power in the hands of 26,000 police officers produces system-wide waste, inefficiencies and state-sanctioned coercion in the form of over-charging."

Entitlled "Crowns or Cops?: An Examination of Criminal Charging Powers in Canada," the report argues that Crown lawyers should have the deciding role in which charges to lay.   

"Police exhibit tendencies in the direction of charging promiscuously and illogically," writes Williams.

The report comes as court systems across the country face lengthy delays in getting cases to trial. In dozens of cases, the delays have exceeded limits set by the Supreme Court of Canada, prompting judges to throw out charges as serious as murder.

'A way of clearing the junk'

The statistics suggest pre-screening of charges by the Crown could reduce some of the burden on the court system in provinces such as Ontario, says John Sewell, co-ordinator of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition, which commissioned the research. 

"Police exhibit tendencies in the direction of charging promiscuously and illogically," writes criminologist Chris Williams, author of the report. (Dave Chidley/CBC)

"This is a way of clearing the junk from the courts," said Sewell in an interview Tuesday with CBC News. "Trying to have it in Ontario makes a lot of sense."

Sewell said he met this week with Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi to present the research. 

The provincial Ministry of the Attorney General "is committed to enhancing our current practices to ensure the justice system is effective and efficient, without compromising public safety," said senior communications advisor Clare Graham in a statement. "We are considering all available options."

Embedded Crowns

The province is already experimenting with what it calls "embedded Crowns" in two police detachments (Toronto and Ottawa) to offer advice and support on bail decisions. They are also working to find alternatives to criminal charges for low-risk people who come in contact with police but "do not belong in the criminal justice system," said Graham.

The goal of the pilot project, which launched in January, is to manage low-risk cases in a way that makes the most efficient use of court resources.

The Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police supports the pilot project but believes police should retain the final say on laying charges, said Joe Couto, the group's director of government relations and communications

"We think police need to determine whether they have grounds to believe a law was broken, then it's up to the Crown to decide how to pursue the charges," said Couto. 

Statistics Canada figures show greater use of multiple charges against individual suspects in provinces where charges are not pre-screened by prosecutors.

Sewell sees that as a pressure tactic designed to induce a plea bargain. 

"The police lay an awful lot of charges in the hopes that they can get somebody to plead guilty to this or that or this," he said.   


Mike Crawley

Senior reporter

Mike Crawley covers provincial affairs in Ontario for CBC News. He began his career as a newspaper reporter in B.C., filed stories from 19 countries in Africa as a freelance journalist, then joined the CBC in 2005. Mike was born and raised in Saint John, N.B.