First it was impaired-driving charges that were stayed because the cases were not brought to trial within a reasonable time. Then it was cocaine-trafficking charges.
Now the office of the chief judge of B.C. Provincial Court has warned that court delays will only worsen unless the provincial government reverses budget cutbacks.
The Provincial Court has 16 fewer judges than it did in 2005 but provincial funding is available to fill only nine of those positions, says a statement from the office of Chief Judge James Crabtree that was supplied to The Globe and Mail in response to written questions.
"Budget reductions" have meant the court does not have the money to fill seven vacancies, the statement says.
Impaired-driving and drug-trafficking charges were stayed in the East Kootenay region of southeastern B.C., but the problem is widespread. The court has told the government about other locations "in immediate need of additional judicial resources," the statement says.
"If judicial resources are not forthcoming, growing backlogs are inevitable."
Two cocaine-trafficking cases were stayed in Cranbrook over the past two weeks after delays of more than 20 months in bringing the cases to trial. The length of the delays in the impaired-driving cases were not available Sunday.
The Supreme Court of Canada in 1990 ruled that a lengthy delay in bringing a case to trial violated a person's constitutional right to be tried within a reasonable time. The Provincial Court has a standard of holding 90 per cent of its half-day adult criminal trials within six months and 90 per cent of two-day trials within eight months.
B.C. Attorney General Mike De Jong did not respond to a request for an interview. A ministry spokesperson who was not authorized to speak on the record said the province works with the office of the chief judge and that it was not clear whether the number of judges was the reason for the lengthy delays in the courtroom.
NDP critic Leonard Krog says he believes the government has tried to save money by leaving vacancies unfilled.
"I suspect it is just a way of keeping the costs down," Mr. Krog said. "If you do not appoint judges and not have to put staff in courtrooms, guess what? It saves the Ministry of the Attorney General a fair bit of money," he said.
"They need to make these appointments and need to ensure the court rooms and staff - sheriffs, clerks - are there to ensure [the courts]are up and running. Otherwise we continue to see more criminal cases dismissed because of delays."
The first signs of trouble surfaced a few weeks ago, when three impaired-driving charges were stayed in Golden in southeastern B.C. Provincial Court Judge Ronald Webb subsequently stayed the cocaine-trafficking charges in the nearby city of Cranbrook.
RCMP Corporal Chris Faulkner said the police had arrested a 27-year-old man operating what police call a dial-a-dope business. Police say they phoned the drug dealer and made arrangements to meet him. They arrested him and charged him with trafficking on Nov. 21, 2007.
The trial was eventually scheduled for Oct. 26, 2009, 23 months later. The accused did not show up. He later told the judge the date has slipped his mind. His trial was re-scheduled for May 31.
But last week, the charges were stayed. Judge Webb said the delay from October to May was not the fault of the court, Cpl. Faulkner said. Regardless, the delay from November, 2007, to October, 2009 was too long.
Cpl. Faulkner said police have seen more and more delays in holding trials. "Things have been piling up and piling up, and now it has come to the breaking point for some of them."