Justice minister says upcoming court delay meeting 'not about appointing blame'

Canada’s justice minister says laying blame shouldn’t be on the agenda when she sits down with her provincial counterparts at the end of the month to to discuss how to deal with the fallout caused by the so-called Jordan decision, last summer’s controversial Supreme Court ruling aimed at limiting trial delays.

Provinces adding pressure to appoint more Superior Court judges

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

Canada's justice minister says laying blame shouldn't be on the agenda when she sits down with her provincial counterparts at the end of the month.

The ministers will discuss how to deal with the fallout caused by a controversial Supreme Court ruling last summer aimed at limiting trial delays.

The so-called Jordan decision has generated chaos in courtrooms across the province.

In July the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a reasonable delay to trial is no more than 18 months in provincial court and 30 months for cases before the Superior Court.

Those time limits have resulted in some serious cases being thrown out of court, including a case in Quebec earlier this month where a man accused of killing his wife had his charges stayed because the case took too long to get to trial.

Since then there's been public disputes about how to fix the problem. The provinces have been arguing Ottawa needs to quickly fill judicial vacancies in federal superior courts.

Administration of justice is a shared responsibility.- Jody Wilson-Raybould

But justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould says much of the onus remains with the provinces, given that most criminal cases fall within their jurisdictions.

"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," she told CBC Radio's The House host Chris Hall.

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

Wilson-Raybould said she's hoping the provinces and territories can learn from each other when they sit down in the next few weeks.

"We can share the best practices that we, in our individual jurisdictions, have been advancing, we can learn from each other, and we can ensure that we are coordinating all the good work that's happening, but also identify where we can make improvements," she said.

"There's a common criminal code that applies in every jurisdiction in the country and some jurisdictions have more delays than others. And we need to understand why."

Criminal Code review needed: Ontario

For provinces, the reality of dealing with the Jordan decision has proven to be a painful one.

"The Jordan decision has been a game changer," Ontario attorney general Yasir Naqvi told The House.

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court's decision last July, Ontario Attorney General Yasir Naqvi announced an additional 13 provincial judges would be appointed, and the province would hire 32 more assistant Crown attorneys, 16 duty counsel and 26 court staff. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court's decision, Ontario announced an additional 13 provincial judges would be appointed, and the province would hire 32 more assistant Crown attorneys, 16 duty counsel and 26 court staff.

Naqvi has also suggested eliminating preliminary inquiries for non-serious cases.

"We need to work really hard, as a collective, to ensure that we do not get into a situation where there is an erosion of trust by the public in our justice system," he said.

He added that Ottawa could help by filling judicial vacancies faster, and exploring fundamental changes to the justice system.

"The real set of solutions lies in reform of the criminal code," Naqvi argued. "We can start a national conversation and start looking at bold reforms that deal with structural issues in criminal law."

Quebec is also adding pressure to appoint more justices. Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée maintains delays in the upper courts — which hear more serious crimes, such as murder — are Ottawa's responsibility. 

Vallée accused the federal government of dragging its heels on filling 14 judicial vacancies on Quebec's Superior Court.

"We've been waiting for these positions to be filled for quite a long time," she told CBC Montreal Daybreak on Monday. 

Manitoba looks for OK from Ottawa

​Manitoba hasn't had to stay any cases yet because of the Jordan decision, but Justice Minister Heather Stefanson said they know that time is coming.

Manitoba Justice Minister Heather Stefanson says that without a solution, stays as a result of the Jordan ruling "are only going to get worse." (CBC)

She's already written to Ottawa to ask permission for Manitoba to conduct a four-year pilot project to see if replacing preliminary hearings with an out-of-court discovery process to reduce court backlogs.

She'll be looking for the green light from the federal government at the emergency meeting this month.

"It still allows defence attorneys to call witnesses, but it's just not done in the form of a preliminary inquiry. Those preliminary inquiries are causing significant court backlogs," she explained to Hall.

"This is what we believe is a more moderate, balanced approach to what we need."

Last year's Jordan ruling by the Supreme Court was supposed to impose time limits on how long an accused has to wait for trial. It's also created chaos, with serious cases being stayed. We talk to Ontario's Attorney General Yasir Naqvi. 10:17