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Judge speaks out against court delays Add to ...

A three-day trial that lasted seven months has prompted an Ontario Superior Court judge to speak out against escalating caseloads and deepening scheduling difficulties in the province's courts.

Madam Justice Sandra Chapnik overturned a decision by an Ontario Court judge who convicted Toronto cab driver Jagmohan Singh Sahota of two counts of assault with a weapon.

Judge Chapnik said in a written ruling that long gaps in the hearing of evidence in Mr. Sahota's case compromised the verdict and "may well have led to a grave miscarriage of justice."

Mr. Sahota, 43, was charged with hitting two other cab drivers with a hammer during a street altercation on Jan. 14, 1999.

The presentation of evidence at his trial took only three days, the judge noted.

But because the court was so overbooked, the hearing was spread over three different dates: Jan. 23, March 19 and June 5, 2002. The verdict was announced on June 21, and sentencing did not occur until Aug. 27.

In upholding Mr. Sahota's appeal, Judge Chapnik said the reasons released by Judge John Ritchie for his decision were "brief, generic and conclusory."

Important material facts were left out, as well as contradictions and inconsistencies in the evidence, leaving the convicted man in no position to provide a foundation for his appeal to the higher court, she said.

"This appeal underscores a very serious deficiency in our system of criminal justice in Ontario [and] highlights the problems that can occur in a busy and overburdened trial court," Judge Chapnik said in her ruling.

The increasingly common practice of fitting in trial days singly over extended periods of time leads to problems with weak memories, forgotten testimony, faulty reasons and more and more miscarriages of justice, she added.

"In my view, once a trial [has] begun, it must continue to completion and a decision be rendered within a reasonable time frame."

Reached in his cab yesterday, Mr. Sahota reacted cautiously when asked to comment on the judge's decision.

"I'm totally innocent," he said. "I finally got justice."

But he added he was worried that the charges could still be prosecuted in a new trial, and lamented that the case has already cost him $15,000 in legal fees.

"It's not easy for a cab driver," he said.

At least three other Ontario Superior Court judges have cited delays and scheduling problems due to overbooking in recent decisions where charges were stayed or new trials ordered, Judge Chapnik noted.

In January, Mr. Justice David Cole lamented: "We are falling further and further behind. We are now probably at crisis stage in the sense that these 11(b) applications [to dismiss charges because of delay] are now coming rather like Lake Erie falls over Niagara Falls."

Mr. Justice R. D. Reilly recently overturned a stay of proceedings granted by a lower court because the judge was faced with the "arguably insurmountable task of doing justice in a trial which took place over some 17 days over a period approaching four years."

And Mr. Justice Casey Hill, who criticized court scheduling practices in a ruling this year, said the splitting of trials has come about because of unrealistically booked trial lists, a shortage of judicial resources and cases coming to court without having had a pretrial hearing.

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