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Qing Quentin Huang leaves a Toronto courthouse on April 27, 2015.Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

Citing unreasonable delays in a national-security case, a judge has stayed the eight-year-long criminal prosecution of a man accused by CSIS and the RCMP of trying to leak state secrets to China.

Justice Michael Dambrot of the Ontario Superior Court said he would release his reasoning in the coming days.

Pending an appeal, the decision Wednesday ends Canada’s marathon prosecution of Qing Quentin Huang, an Ontario shipbuilding engineer. In 2013, he was charged under the Security of Information Act (SOIA) after authorities alleged he was caught on tape trying “to communicate to a foreign entity information that the Government of Canada was taking measures to safeguard.”

Experts say this marks the first time that the principle of a timely trial has scuttled criminal charges involving allegations of the leaking of state secrets. Legal rights giving crime suspects access to trials without unreasonable delay were first affirmed in Canada’s 1982 Charter of Rights. They were bolstered through a Supreme Court of Canada ruling five years ago.

“This is the first time delay – Section 11(b) of the Charter – has been the basis for staying a national-security prosecution,” said Leah West, a Carleton University professor who has worked in the federal Justice Department’s national security law group.

Prof. West says that prosecutors run the risk of similar rulings in the future unless Parliament updates its laws, given how the current legislation results in national-security criminal cases bouncing between various levels of court. “Ultimately a case like this is the impetus we need to put it back on the legislative agenda,” she said. “It will require some legislative reform. It is not going to be fixed by policies.”

Mr. Huang, who lives near Hamilton, Ont., and worked as a contractor for a company designing ships for the Royal Canadian Navy, was alleged to have tried to discuss Canadian naval secrets with Chinese diplomats.

No secrets were actually leaked. Mr. Huang was later arrested in a sting operation by the RCMP. His trial was delayed for years as the case was shuttled between various courts, which heard legal arguments centring on how much he was allowed to know about how he came to the attention of authorities.

According to preliminary rulings in the case, Mr. Huang’s alleged 2013 phone calls were intercepted because the Canadian Security Intelligence Service was wiretapping the Chinese embassy in Ottawa as part of a highly classified investigation.

In the years that followed, Crown lawyers fought to preserve CSIS secrets and wiretap-warrant applications from being exposed in open court. Meanwhile, Mr. Huang and his lawyer Frank Addario pressed for disclosures that they say he was entitled to as a criminal suspect seeking to challenge evidence.

As prosecutors appealed disclosure rulings favourable to Mr. Huang, elements of the case moved from Ontario Superior Court to the Federal Court of Canada and the Federal Court of Appeal, then back to Ontario Superior Court.

In 2019, Justice Minister David Lametti used a legislated power for the first time that allowed him to overrule judges and keep passages of CSIS materials from being disclosed. In 2020, prosecutors dropped two of four charges against Mr. Huang, effectively removing elements of their case based on the embassy wiretaps.

Early this year, a senior official of the department of global affairs testified that Canadian lives could be at risk if disclosures had the effect of angering Beijing.

This fall, Justice Dambrot was presented with an application from Mr. Addario arguing that all these time-consuming debates about secrecy violated the imperatives for timely trials set out in a 2016 Supreme Court ruling known as Jordan. That ruling set a clock ticking on all prosecutions in Canada by directing the Crown and defence lawyers to move along criminal charges so as to preserve the fundamental rights of the accused.

The Canada Evidence Act, enacted 20 years ago this week on Dec. 18, 2001, set up a two-track court system for sensitive cases. Provincial criminal courts are prevailed upon to hear most evidence in the open. But the legislation says these proceedings can be put on pause if intelligence activities by the Canadian government risk coming to light. At this point, Federal Court of Canada judges are to intervene and weigh in on what evidence can be released and what ought to be held back.

The consequence of a bifurcated court system is that all of this takes time. The delay application filed by Mr. Addario on behalf of Mr. Huang says this was first highlighted more than a decade ago during former Supreme Court justice John Major’s Air-India inquiry.

Parliament’s “inaction flies in the face of numerous warnings by judges, lawyers, academics, and the 2010 Commissioner’s Report regarding the Bombing of Air India Flight 182,” Mr. Huang’s delay application, filed this fall, reads. It adds that “in 2010, Justice Major recommended that Parliament abolish the two-court system – an inefficient system that does not appear to exist anywhere else in the world – and provide Superior Court judges with the power to determine issues of national security confidentiality.”

Federal prosecutors will have 30 days to appeal Justice Dambrot’s ruling once he releases his written decision.

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