A new report on justice reform in British Columbia is recommending sweeping changes that would drag the system into the modern age and address chronic failings that have led to backlogs, infighting and diminishing public trust.
The report – titled A Criminal Justice System for the 21st Century – was written by lawyer Geoffrey Cowper and released Thursday. More than six months in the making, it contains more than 40 recommendations that impact every aspect of the justice system.
The report was commissioned in February amid a growing outcry from judges and others that the system was woefully underfunded and understaffed, particularly on the bench. A lack of resources was being blamed for producing an unconscionable trial backlog, which, in turn, was being held as the reason a growing number of cases were being stayed on the grounds of undue process.
In his review, Mr. Cowper proposes a number of reforms that fall across the entire system. They include a province-wide crime reduction plan, measures to resolve criminal cases earlier and reduce the number of delays and backlogged cases and a major overhaul of how prosecutors handle files.
Perhaps the most significant recommendation is the establishment of a new Criminal Justice and Public Safety Council that would exist within the justice ministry. It would be responsible for development of an overall strategy for the criminal justice system, one that ensures effective collaboration among the various stakeholders.
It is Mr. Cowper’s view that previous efforts at justice reform failed because of the institutional “silos” that have been established over the years among judges, prosecutors, defence and government itself. Consequently, the justice system has never truly operated as one overarching body but instead as several independent structures and quasi-institutions.
“What is fundamentally needed is a clear vision for the justice system as a whole,” Mr. Cowper writes in his report. “... A true systems approach to reform and project management discipline across the board.
“This means at the start that there must be clear and accepted goals, disciplined execution and clear performance measures that are monitored and evaluated.”
Despite falling crime rates and a decline in the number of cases going into the court system, Mr. Cowper says the court structure in B.C. is failing to meet the public’s expectations of a modern justice system. The public is particularly frustrated by how long cases take to get to trial, he says.
Mr. Cowper said the new council would establish system-wide measures and standards of performance.
“I think we need timeliness measures that will encourage early resolution of cases and I think we need to change systematically how we do our business in order to make that possible,” Mr. Cowper said in an interview.
One method to achieve that is by changing the way the Crown handles cases. Right now, one case can go through the hands of several different prosecutors as it winds its way through the system. The report recommends the same prosecutor handle one file from start to finish.
“That way they will have a stake in resolving it earlier than later,” he said.
The report also recommends that trial dates be set much sooner after charges are laid. Today, it can take a year to 18 months before a trial takes place, but in the meantime the accused can make several perfunctory appearances in court to deal with housekeeping matters related to his case. This is usually a complete waste of a judge’s time.
Mr. Cowper said a pilot project in Kelowna that experimented with an early trial date approach was extremely successful. Those dates were set within 60 days of the accused being charged. Out of 68 cases, all but two were resolved by way of a guilty plea or a stay of the charges.
“When you have a trial date that is only a couple months away the accused will come to the realization that there is no real benefit to him or her not addressing the charges now because they’re just going to have to deal with them in a few weeks anyway,” said Mr. Cowper.
“Whereas, if the system is delayed the accused can sit there and say: ‘I can think about this for a year and then make up my mind when the trial comes.’ If you’re a defence lawyer, what’s in your client’s best interest?”
Meanwhile, during that long delay the accused is usually subject to bail conditions that are routinely breached. Almost half the charges in the court system aren’t of a serious criminal nature but instead are related to breaches of bail conditions. This is another big waste of a judge’s time.
“In my view that is a huge dysfunction in the system and we need to get rid of them,” said Mr. Cowper.
At the time the report was commissioned, it was widely accepted that the number of judges on the provincial court was down by as many as 20. The government, however, disputed this figure. Mr. Cowper recommends that there be a “definite judicial complement” based on the best available evidence of the current and expected workload of the court.
“Such an approach should reduce the tension between the court and the government and enable both to focus on the challenges at hand,” the report says. That complement would be reviewed every three to four years.
The provincial court has suggested that 18 new judicial appointments be made to reduce the backlog of cases in the system. While not supporting that number, Mr. Cowper did agree with the court’s suggestion that the appointment of five judges immediately would enable an aggressive reduction of the case backlog.