Ontario may not meet target on court delays

Ontario's governing Liberals have their doubts about whether they'll be able to meet their own lofty target to cut down on court appearances that delay criminal cases.

Ontario's governing Liberals have their doubts about whether they'll be able to meet their own lofty target to cut down on court appearances that delay criminal cases.

Progress has been made to cut the average number of appearances by 30 per cent, but it "remains to be seen" whether the province will meet that target this year, Attorney General John Gerretsen told The Canadian Press.

"It's difficult for all of us to change the way we've traditionally been doing things, and perhaps the target of 30 per cent may have been too ambitious at the time," he said in an interview.

"But I see some value in the fact that we have reduced, on average, the number of appearances and that we're heading in the right direction. But much more proactive work has to be done."

Gerretsen, a practising lawyer of 35 years, acknowledged he's the "new kid on the block" and is still getting up to speed on the project after being shuffled to the justice portfolio last October.

His predecessor Chris Bentley -- now energy minister -- launched "Justice on Target" with much fanfare in 2008.

But with six months to go until the June deadline, it appears the province will likely fall short of its ambitious goal.

Processing times province-wide have only decreased about seven per cent, according to statistics compiled by the government.

It took an average of 8.56 appearances to complete a criminal charge in the province last June, down from 9.2 appearances in 2007.

Some courts are faring better than others, however. Kirkland Lake cut the average number of appearances about 45 per cent to 4.7 from 8.5, while Gerretsen's hometown of Kingston saw appearances reduced about 19 per cent to 7.9 from 9.7.

The numbers actually increased slightly in Ottawa -- to 9.3 from 9.2 -- and Toronto's Old City Hall courthouse to 12.9 from 12.6.

And according to a review conducted last year, some judges, court workers, defence lawyers and Crown prosecutors have voiced concerns about the program and the lack of resources to implement it.

The 137-page review, which looked at how the project was being implemented in five Toronto-area courthouses, was conducted at the request of the Justice on Target management committee.

Some Crowns from Old City Hall who were interviewed for the review showed "a clear sense of frustration" with the project, it found.

"Some expressed a belief that they are being held responsible for achieving Justice on Target objectives, despite many factors being outside of their control," the review said.

Judges in Brampton were worried about "unintentional consequences" of the project -- such as having additional cases "unnecessarily set for trial" and adding to already crowded trial dockets.

Judges at Toronto's College Park courthouse were also skeptical of the program.

"Some (interviewees) feel that the judges were awaiting signs of progress and change driven by the ministry to support what was viewed as a high amount of initial fanfare surrounding the initiative," the report said.

"When progress was slow to come, the skepticism remained and participation in Justice on Target among judges was low."

It's not surprising that the government's target won't be met because the project was flawed from the start, said NDP justice critic Jagmeet Singh.

"It didn't provide all the tools necessary to reduce delays," such as easier access to legal help, said the former criminal defence lawyer.

Delays often seem to be more prevalent in cases involving people who can't afford to retain a lawyer, said Singh.

They have to apply and wait for legal aid, which creates even more delays, he said. Those who don't qualify for financial aid often end up in a legal limbo.

A shortage of courtrooms and judges is compounding the problem, Singh added.

And the province doesn't have much money to throw at the problem.

Many ministries outside health and education are bracing for significant budget cuts as the government struggles to slay a $16-billion deficit.

Something needed to be done to reduce court delays, which can thwart justice if a case takes too long to be resolved, said Progressive Conservative critic and former lawyer Christine Elliott.

But putting the justice system under that kind of stress without the resources needed to move things along faster can create a host of new problems, she said.

It puts pressure on prosecutors to deal with cases faster and on accused people to enter guilty pleas because they don't have the benefit of legal assistance, she said.

"There's no question that the whole project was under-resourced to begin with and is putting a lot of people -- particularly in the Crown attorney offices -- under tremendous strain."