For British Columbians watching last year’s riots in England, it was a recurring question: If the unrest there started two months after Vancouver’s Stanley Cup riot, why were the accused hauled into court so much quicker?
One reason, Vancouver police noted, was London officers could lay charges themselves. In B.C., police can only make charge recommendations, then forward their files to Crown for approval.
Whether B.C. should alter that system was one of the issues addressed in the government-ordered justice system review, released last week. But the review found allowing B.C. officers to lay charges wouldn’t enhance the system – in fact, it could make things worse.
“The police, with significant additional costs and adjustments, could do the job. But the Crown can do it better,” wrote lawyer Gary McCuaig, who looked specifically at the charge-assessment process. Fellow lawyer Geoffrey Cowper was the formal chair of the review.
Mr. McCuaig – who spoke with 90 people, ranging from judges, to counsel, to police and corrections officials – said the current system has served B.C. well for three decades. He said there was neither a consensus nor evidence that change was needed.
“There is no system that cannot be improved upon,” he wrote. “But to justify changing fundamental and long-standing practices, there must be compelling evidence that significant positive results will [not may] be achieved. Change without making the end product demonstrably better is disruptive, costly and serves no purpose.”
Mr. McCuaig said among the added costs would be more officers who would review cases, as well as enhanced training.
The provincial government has not disclosed if it will implement or reject any of the recommendations in the review and is expected to issue a report on the matter in the fall. The province ordered the review in February. Last year, excessive delays caused more than 100 cases to be stayed and endangered thousands more.
In his report, Mr. McCuaig said the Crown took over the charging function in 1982, at a time when there was no consistent charging system in the province. He said several commissions and inquiries have studied the system since, with each endorsing it.
But Peter Lepine, chief constable of the West Vancouver Police Department and president of the B.C. Association of Chiefs of Police, said in an interview Tuesday that officers are more than capable of laying charges themselves.
“I tend to support police laying their own charges,” he said. “You recognize there’s consequences to that. Some people would say it’s extra bureaucracy. … It’s an extra layer of decision-making before Crown still has to make their decision.
Mr. Lepine said he spoke with Mr. McCuaig for the report and wasn’t surprised by the decision.
“I recognized early in Mr. McCuaig’s mandate that this likely wasn’t going to change, because it’s so entrenched in the way we do business these days. There would have to be a large case that justice is being miscarried in order to get that pendulum to swing the other way. I don’t think it’s there,” he said.
Mr. Lepine said both systems have their strengths and weaknesses. He said the association has not taken a particular stand on the subject and was speaking personally.
Neil MacKenzie, spokesman for the Criminal Justice Branch, said in an interview that the Crown believes the current system works effectively.
Mr. McCuaig’s report suggested there might well be tension between Crown and police when it comes to cases and how to proceed.
Mr. MacKenzie said such disagreements are unavoidable.
“Even in an extremely co-operative, positive relationship, you’re not necessarily going to see eye-to-eye on every particular issue,” he said. “But the branch is going to continue to work closely and co-operatively with the police.”