Half of 28 new judge positions announced in 2017 remain unfilled

Ottawa has appointed just half of the 28 new superior court judges announced in the 2017 budget to help clear up delays in the justice system.

Federal Department of Justice under pressure over impact of bench vacancies on stressed system

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould appointed 100 judges in 2017 and officials in her department say she is on pace to meet or exceed that number this year. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Ottawa has appointed just half of the 28 new superior court judges announced in the 2017 budget to help clear up delays in the justice system.

That announcement happened nearly 16 months ago. Bill C-44, the 2017 budget implementation bill, passed more than a year ago.

At the time of the initial announcement, the feds said some of the new positions would "help address immediate demographic pressures in Alberta and Yukon," while a pool of other positions would "help ensure that Canadians have timely access to justice in other provinces and territories."

Since then, only 14 judges have been appointed to new positions created by Bill C-44.

It's not clear when the rest of those positions will be filled, or even which provinces will get some of those judges. A dozen were assigned to Alberta, one to Yukon and the rest to a national pool to be allocated on the basis of need — a process that is still underway.

Alberta was set to receive 12 new superior court judges in the 2017 federal budget. To date, five of those positions have been filled. (David Bell/CBC)

"The minister has been clear that filling judicial vacancies plays an important part in helping to reduce court delays, but there are other factors as well," Department of Justice spokesperson David Taylor said in an emailed statement.

"The administration of justice is a shared responsibility with the provinces and territories, and more than 95 per cent of all criminal cases are heard in provincial courts."

Five of the judges appointed under Bill C-44 to date are at work in Alberta. Four are in Ontario and three are in Quebec. Yukon and Newfoundland and Labrador each got one.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould appointed or elevated 100 judges in 2017, "the most by any minister in a calendar year in more than two decades," said Taylor.

"She is on pace to meet or exceed that number in 2018 and will be making further appointments in due course."

Bar association says lack of judges having impact

The president of the Canadian Bar Association said she's not surprised that half of the new positions announced in early 2017 remain unfilled.

"I am glad they are moving forward with making appointments, but they're not doing it fast enough," Kerry Simmons told CBC News.

"What we know on the ground is that we need and do not have enough judges in the system to meet the needs of people coming to court and saying, 'Please decide my problem for me.'"

Victoria, B.C.-based lawyer Kerry Simmons is president of the Canadian Bar Association. (Courtesy of CBA)

The CBA wrote Wilson-Raybould in January to highlight its concerns about the number of judicial vacancies in provincial superior courts.

The association noted that "maintaining full judicial complements is critically important to ensuring public access to, and confidence in, our justice system."

Eight months ago, there were 63 federally-appointed vacancies across the country. That number has dropped to 58 as of July 1, according to the Office of the Commissioner for Federal Judicial Affairs Canada.

Simmons said there are real-life impacts linked to a lack of judicial resources in the system.

They include families going through divorce or child custody cases left waiting when there is no judge available to help them figure out a parenting plan for their children, or whether one parent can move to a different location.

"They need a judge to make that decision for them because they can't agree," she said.

"If we don't have a judge to hear that case, or it's taking months to get into court, then that family is in limbo. They are under a lot of stress, trying to figure out what is going to happen."

Simmons acknowledged that judicial appointments are not the only reason for bottlenecks in the justice system, but dealing with that particular issue could be a relatively quick fix.

"That is something that we can make progress on, and we should be making progress, which is why we're saying to the government, 'Please move forward more quickly in that area,'" Simmons said.

Jordan decision put pressure on system

The 2016 Supreme Court of Canada Jordan decision ratcheted up pressure on the justice system to deal with systemic court delays.

As of a year ago, more than 200 criminal cases had been tossed because they didn't get to court quickly enough to meet the Jordan standard. Hundreds more have been stayed since. Those cases include charges of murder and sexual assault.

Back in April, the Opposition Conservatives ripped the Trudeau government over the slow pace of judicial appointments.

Asked about judicial vacancies in a March appearance on CBC's Power & Politics, Wilson-Raybould pointed to the 100 judges she named to the bench in 2017. Most of those were replacements for judges who had resigned or retired.

"I'm going to continue to work very diligently to go through judicial applications, and continue to appoint judges that are highly meritorious, reflect the diversity of the country, to fill vacancies," she said.

"Judges are one aspect of the criminal justice system. I'm committed to filling the vacancies."

At the time she made those comments, the federal Liberals had just unveiled a suite of proposals in Bill C-75 to speed up the system.

Bill C-75 will have "a real effect on court delays," Taylor said.

He added the bill will reform the bail system, administration of justice offences, preliminary inquiries and jury selection "to help bring about a necessary culture shift within the criminal justice system."

About the Author

Rob Antle

CBC News

Rob Antle is producer for CBC's investigative unit in Newfoundland and Labrador.

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