Simmering discontent over clogged courts in British Columbia boiled over on Wednesday, with Premier Christy Clark being grilled over delays and a provincial judge asserting that recent judicial appointments are doing nothing to ease the congestion.
“I think what’s misleading is to suggest that they are somehow new judges,” Judge Robin Smith said the day after dismissing drug-related charges against two siblings as a result of court delays. “We’ve got judges retiring here in the Okanagan.”
Some have not retired completely but moved to a half-time roles, the judge said, resulting in gaps that have only partly been filled by the one new judge delegated to the Okanagan, which includes busy courts in Vernon and Penticton as well as in Kelowna.
After months of public outcry over court delays, the B.C. government earlier this month appointed nine judges to communities around the province, saying they would “address caseload pressures on B.C.’s courts and improve access to the justice system.”
That’s not likely to happen, Judge Smith said, reiterating points he made on Tuesday in court.
“So yes, it’s really nice that we got nine new appointments, but it has to be in the context that those aren’t nine new net appointments,” the judge said in a telephone interview from Kelowna.
“We’re bleeding in the sense that we are understaffed here in the Okanagan,” he said, adding that the region is still down one-and-a-half positions from what it had in 2005.
A single additional judge in the Okanagan won’t be enough to tackle a backlog, the judge said, noting that the pair whose charges were dismissed on Tuesday had two previous trial dates that had not gone ahead because the court could not accommodate them.
In the legislature on Wednesday, Opposition Leader Adrian Dix questioned Ms. Clark about a January court ruling that stayed charges against a man accused of attempting to lure children online because of an unreasonable delay in bringing him to trial.
B.C. Provincial Court Judge Daniel Steinberg said 27 months had gone by since the man was charged, and he granted a request that the charges be stayed for that reason.
“There is in my opinion only one word to describe the current state of the Provincial Court of British Columbia's ability to handle its caseload: abysmal,” the judge said in his decision.
In response to questions about the case, Ms. Clark cited recent steps the province has taken to improve the court system, including the hiring of the new nine judges, more sheriffs and increased funding for legal aid.
While many of those new resources have been announced only in recent weeks, the backlog has been charted for years, with the provincial court issuing regular reports of court delays since the number of judges on the bench started to fall in 2005.
In applying for a stay, lawyers for the two siblings accused of drug offences submitted one of those reports to Judge Smith to buttress their arguments.
The case had dragged on for 33 months without going to trial. Ten months of the delay came about when the accused asked for an adjournment on their first trial date so they could get a lawyer, Judge Smith said.
The remaining 23 months was what’s known as a “systemic delay,” caused by backlogs and bottlenecks in the system.
“I was dealing with a systemic delay of 23 months,” Judge Smith said. “The Supreme Court of Canada has repeatedly said their guideline is eight to 10 months. So when you start getting to 23 months, it’s way beyond that Supreme Court of Canada guideline.”
“Stays and delays are absolutely unacceptable,” Premier Christy Clark told reporters in Victoria on Wednesday.
“But boiling it down to money doesn't really speak to the heart of the issue. ... We've been adding more money and the problem has been getting worse.”
Ms. Clark announced a review of the court system earlier this month. That review is scheduled to take five months.
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