Skip to main content

A judge has chastised the Canadian Justice Department after it said working from home is so difficult it needed 50 days to prepare for an urgent court hearing. The hearing involves an ill federal prisoner seeking early release because of the new coronavirus pandemic.

Prison advocates say the case of convicted drug dealer Leslie McCulloch illustrates the extent of government foot-dragging on prisoner releases. Mr. McCulloch had applied to the Federal Court in Ottawa not for parole, but for an order to the Parole Board of Canada to decide his case quickly. The Justice Department said it needed seven weeks and one day to prepare for a hearing on whether the parole board should be pushed to act without delay, citing the case’s complexity and the hardships of working from home.

Federal Court Justice Sébastien Grammond wrote that the case was not unduly complex and home challenges could be overcome; three weeks, he ruled, is enough preparation time. With courts closed to all but urgent business, he said in his ruling, the Justice Department should be able to find time for urgent cases – in spite of any difficulties for people in working with young children around, or in overcoming technological challenges.

“One would expect that the Department of Justice still has the capacity to prosecute a relatively small number of urgent cases despite the COVID-19 restrictions,” he wrote on April 29.

A spokeswoman for Attorney-General David Lametti referred The Globe and Mail to the department of Public Safety. The department referred The Globe to the Parole Board of Canada. The Globe contacted Mary-Liz Power, spokeswoman for Bill Blair, who oversees correctional services and the parole board. She said the parole board was preparing an response. By late Sunday, the board had not sent a reply.

Some provinces, including Ontario and Nova Scotia, have released large numbers of inmates. But Ottawa is known to have given early release to only a handful of federal prisoners because of the pandemic: a man with cancer and other major health problems who filed a court challenge; a pregnant woman; and an elderly prisoner with lupus. The latest data posted by the Correctional Service of Canada show that, as of Saturday, 290 federal prisoners have tested positive for COVID-19.

Mr. McCulloch, an inmate at Matsqui Institution in British Columbia (currently with no reported COVID-19 cases), has slightly more than seven years remaining on an eight-year sentence for drug dealing. In normal circumstances, he would not be eligible for day parole until late in 2021. But federal law allows “parole by exception” for the terminally ill and others for whom continued confinement could cause serious damage to their mental and physical health. They still need to be considered “not an undue risk” to public safety.

Through his lawyer, Eric Purtzki of Vancouver, he applied to the parole board on April 2, but has received no word back except that the board received his application. On April 22, he applied to the Federal Court for the order.

Prison advocates see the government’s 50-day request as evidence that Ottawa is unwilling to address the issue of releasing medically vulnerable prisoners in a timely way during the pandemic.

“Unbelievable,” said Cathy Latimer, executive director of the John Howard Society, which advocates for criminal-justice reform.

“To ask for a delay of 50 days when in the last 30 days we’ve seen 250 prisoners impacted by it, a rate of infection that’s about 13 times higher than in the normal population and at least one death – to anticipate what’s going to happen in the next 50 days, it’s not a pleasurable thought.”

Paul Champ, a human-rights lawyer in Ottawa, described the case as an example of how the federal bureaucracy is unwilling to address the issue of prisoner releases with urgency.

“These are the lengths people have to fight just to get a hearing before the parole board during the pandemic.”

He added: “Fighting inmate by inmate is not the solution here. Lawyers will continue to help vulnerable inmates, but there needs to be a systematic approach by the federal government. More people will die.”

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.