Fill judicial vacancies to end trial delays: committee report
Court delays leave innocent in limbo, guilty without prosecution and Canadians frustrated, senator says
The delays plaguing the justice system have become a crisis that could result in the release of thousands of criminals, say the senators behind a new report that explores how long it takes for cases to wind their way through the courts.
"It needs to be remedied immediately," Sen. George Baker said Friday in Ottawa as the standing Senate committee on legal and constitutional affairs released its interim report on a problem they say is eroding public confidence in the criminal justice system.
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"We now have a crisis situation in this country in which you are going to see tens of thousands of persons who are guilty of serious crimes in this country released," said Baker, a Senate Liberal.
"They will not go to jail for what they're convicted of, simply because we have not made the proper changes in procedures relating to court operations."
The Supreme Court of Canada issued a potentially groundbreaking decision last month when it set out a new framework for determining whether a criminal trial has been unreasonably delayed, citing a "culture of complacency" for contributing to the problem.
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms says someone charged with an offence has the right to have their case tried within a reasonable amount of time. In a 5-4 decision, the high court defined that period as 18 months for provincial courts and 30 months for superior courts.
The ruling came with a transitional measure for cases already in the system, although a dissenting minority opinion argued the new time limits could lead to thousands of prosecutions being tossed out.
Asked whether such a possibility could force the federal government to act more quickly on reducing delays, Conservative Sen. Denise Batters said: "I hope they do."
Judicial appointments key
The 15-page report describes the complex factors behind delays, which it notes persist despite overall crime rates having been on the decline since the early 1990s.
"The innocent are left in limbo. The persons who committed crimes are left unprosecuted and Canadians are left frustrated. They are so frustrated that they condemn our court process," Baker said.
Senator George Baker says there have been a dozen cases thrown out of court this week because of delay # cdnpoli <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/hw?src=hash">#hw</a> <a href="https://t.co/HC3AilnP2B">pic.twitter.com/HC3AilnP2B</a>—@JULIEVANDUSEN
And the senators say a shortage of judges — including 44 federally appointed positions that remain empty — is an important factor in the delays.
They called on the Liberal government to fill the vacancies immediately and develop a more effective judicial appointments system.
Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said the Liberal government is committed to increasing diversity on the bench and would be sharing the details of a new judicial appointments process — similar to the one announced last week for the Supreme Court — in the near future.
"We are committed to ensuring that Canadians can look to the justices we appoint to the bench and see their faces and life experiences reflected there," Wilson-Raybould said in a speech Friday to the annual legal conference of the Canadian Bar Association.
"That said, I am very sensitive to the pressures that courts throughout the country are currently experiencing due to judicial vacancies," she said, noting the federal government had already made 15 judicial appointments in June.
Senate Opposition leader Claude Carignan said he would rather see vacancies filled now through the existing system of advisory committees and the candidates they have already identified.
Better case management, technology helps
The report recommends a number of ways to improve the issue of delays.
Getting better at case flow management would have a big impact, the report said, highlighting ideas such as no longer requiring the accused to show up for every single court appearance, no matter how brief.
So would the increased use of technology, such as electronic monitoring devices to reduce the number of people who need to be incarcerated in remand centres.
The report also recommends the use of restorative justice and therapeutic or alternative courts, citing the value of police discretion in whether people dealing with mental health issues and addictions needs to be arrested instead of referred to programs where they can get help.
The final report is expected next spring.