Judge shortage blamed for risk that prosecutions will be dropped

More accused criminals will walk free because there simply aren’t enough judges sitting in B.C. Provincial Court to hear their cases.

  • Dec. 27, 2010 3:00 p.m.

More accused criminals will walk free because there simply aren’t enough judges sitting in B.C. Provincial Court to hear their cases.

That’s the warning from a new report released by the court that says the chronic shortage of judges is putting thousands of criminal cases at risk of being thrown out due to unacceptable delays.

“The current inventory of uncompleted cases is growing markedly, as is the delay for all case types other than youth court prosecutions,” according to the report titled Justice Delayed: A Report of the Provincial Court of British Columbia Concerning Judicial Resources.

“Increasingly, the Court is failing to meet its legal obligation to provide timely access to justice.”

There are now 16,000 cases that have been before the courts for more than 180 days, it says.

“While it is not possible to predict the number of cases that will be stayed for unreasonable delay, thousands of cases are at risk.”

Surrey and Terrace face the worst delays in the province, with 15-month waits for a half-day adult criminal trial – far in excess of the provincial standard that 90 per cent of such trials proceed within six months.

Both cities have fewer judges sitting than in 2005 and lost neighbouring courthouses in Delta and Kitimat to provincial government-ordered closures in 2002.

Half-day trials are also being delayed 11 months or more in Fort St. John, Dawson Creek, Sechelt, Vancouver (Main Street), Kelowna, Chilliwack, Vernon/Penticton and Campbell River.

For two-day criminal trials, Surrey, Fort St. John, Dawson Creek and Terrace face delays of 15 to 16 months – compared to the standard of eight months – and at least a year in Kelowna, Smithers, Vancouver, Nanaimo, Chilliwack and Vernon-Penticton.

Family court hearing delays are worst – 10 months or more versus a four-month standard – in Prince George, Sechelt, Abbotsford and Chilliwack.

In Surrey alone, the report says, it would take three more full-time judges hearing strictly criminal trials two years to restore wait times to appropriate levels.

There are 17 fewer judges than in 2005 and the current 130 judges aren’t able to keep up with the number of incoming cases, the report says.

Compared to 2005, there were 900 fewer trial days scheduled in 2010 and there will be 1,600 fewer next year unless more judges are appointed.

Adult criminal cases aren’t the only ones affected.

“Over the last year there has been a dramatic increase in the delay and volume of uncompleted civil, family and child protection cases,” the report says,

Individual judges have also spoke out in recent months about the lengthy system delays that have forced them to toss out cases ranging from impaired driving to drug dealing.

More judges alone won’t cure the backlog – the report says more prosecutors, defence lawyers, clerks, sheriffs and court space will also be required.

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