The B.C. government's plan to bring back retired judges to break a legal logjam in provincial court won't address the problem, the court's chief judge said.
“The backlog of cases which has been accumulating due to the judicial vacancies is now so great that the temporary use of retired judges will not resolve the problem,” B.C. Provincial Court Chief Judge Thomas Crabtree said in a statement.
A convicted cocaine dealer, a man accused of assaulting a police officer and dozens of others have walked free from B.C.’s provincial courts over trial delays.
But B.C. Attorney-General Shirley Bond calls the government announcement to bring back judges to ease the heavy case load “creative.”
“This is an attempt to look at things in an innovative way,” she said Tuesday, the day after the idea was floated in the Throne Speech.
Samiran Lakshman, of the B.C. Crown Counsel Association, said he also expects the delay situation to grow worse and calls the government's plan haphazard and a Band-Aid solution.
“The problem with that is it doesn't fundamentally address what needs to be done, and that is increase the capacity of the court system to actually hear more cases in a more timely manner,” Mr. Lakshman said.
“Even if you hired 30 retired judges, which might make a difference in opening the number of courtrooms, they've announced no different funding for the other participants in the justice system.”
Ms. Bond said more sheriffs and court clerks would be hired.
But for each judge working, it costs about $1.6-million in staffing and court time.
Mr. Lakshman said, meanwhile, that Crown prosecutors are preparing for a $6-million cut to their budget.
The province also pledged in the Throne Speech to speed provincial matters up by diverting family-law cases. However, details won't be released until the law is introduced this fall.
Judge Crabtree said the impact of diverting family cases isn't clear. If the government follows its own white paper on B.C.’s Family Relations Act, there would still be delays in child-protection cases, he said.
In the past few years, Provincial Court judges have used their rulings to complain of provincial government cuts.
Last month, Michael Brechknell freed an “unrepentant” cocaine dealer because his legal odyssey between charge and trial took four years.
In a ruling this week, Judge Mark McEwan stayed the charges of a man accused of using a stolen truck to attempt to ram a police officer's vehicle off the road.
Michael Ellis had spent 31 months in jail awaiting trial, a time Judge McEwan noted was in the range of a prison sentence for the six charges he faced.
The judge said the stay of charges was “thoroughly unsatisfactory.”
“But it is a consequence of government decisions that have seriously impaired the Provincial Court's ability to schedule matters of a week or more within a constitutionally tolerable period of time,” he wrote.
Despite the government's attempt to help, Mr. Lakshman can't see the problem improving soon.
“It's a virtual certainty that we are going to see – and we are seeing – delay applications increasing, delay applications granted … on even more and more serious cases.”
He said defence lawyers are shying away from pleas and suggesting their clients go to trial with the expectation the long delay will result in a stay.
Ms. Bond said her government has appointed 14 new judges in the past two years. But even with the additions, the number of judges still lags behind the numbers of 2005, when there were 144.
There are now 128.
While no charges have been laid yet against those who smashed, looted and burned through downtown Vancouver after the Vancouver Canucks' Stanley Cup loss, Mr. Lakshman said he can only imagine what the court process will be like when those people start showing up in the system.
“It's like a goat going through the python. It's an amazing torrent of files that are going to hit our court.”
Some may plead guilty, “but if there are people that want trials,” he said, pausing, “my goodness.”
Premier Christy Clark is requesting that Crown lawyers ask judges to televise the trials of rioters.
Mr. Lakshman said if the government really wants the public to see justice done in the rioters' cases, then it should have a justice system that actually has the time to hear those trials.
The Canadian Press