A man accused of stabbing his wife to death in Montreal will never have to face trial after the Supreme Court ruled his rights were violated by criminal proceedings that lasted nearly five years.
The case of Sivaloganathan Thanabalasingham, who was charged with the second-degree murder of 21-year-old Anuja Baskaran in 2012, was one of three murder cases that judges stayed after the Supreme Court set new time limits for criminal proceedings in 2016 in a ruling known as R v. Jordan. But appeal courts had reversed the other two rulings, one in Ontario and one in Alberta, and ordered the two men involved to face trial.
But the Supreme Court ruling broke no new legal ground as a precedent for future cases, because it belongs to a transitional period, having begun well before the Jordan ruling. In such cases, the Supreme Court allowed some prosecutions to continue, even if they had gone on longer than the new limits allow: 30 months for cases in Superior Court, and 18 months in Provincial Court.
The court said, however, that the delay in Mr. Thanabalasingham’s case was intolerably long under its new rules from the Jordan case or the court’s previous interpretation of the constitutional right to a trial within a reasonable time. In 2017, the trial judge stayed the prosecution, saying the case was not complex and most of the delay was caused by chronic slowness in Montreal. The Quebec Court of Appeal upheld that, 3-2.
Mr. Thanabalasingham was charged in 2012, and jailed. His preliminary hearing lasted more than a year. His trial was scheduled for April, 2017, and was not expected to be complete for more than 57 months after he was charged.
Those facts, the court said in a 9-0 ruling on Friday, “are indicative of the culture of rampant and long-standing systemic delay – and complacency towards that delay – that had grown up in our criminal justice system. The manner in which these proceedings were conducted epitomizes this culture.” The ruling was authored collectively, which the court does occasionally to underline its unity and resolve on an issue.
Megan Savard, a Toronto lawyer who was not involved in the case, said in an interview the ruling’s message is that no case, even murder, is immune from being stayed for delay. “There was an idea, especially in pre-Jordan times, that murder charges lived in a world of their own. That message has been dispelled now.”
Maude Payette, Quebec’s deputy chief prosecutor, said in an e-mail that the justice system has improved considerably, and that Quebec courts now dismiss almost no cases over unreasonable delay.
Mr. Thanabalasingham was not represented at the Supreme Court, as he was deported to Sri Lanka in 2017. (The Quebec Court of Appeal had initially rejected a Crown appeal as moot, saying a trial was almost certain never to happen, but the Supreme Court had overturned that ruling.)
Louis Belleau, a Montreal lawyer appointed by the Supreme Court to address the issues raised in the case, said in an interview that the ruling “sent a clear message to all the participants in the judicial system that the court meant business when it said enough of the old ways, we have to bring cases to conclusion, rapidly.” But he said he did not view it as a precedent for backlogs created by the pandemic. The Jordan ruling allowed for exceptional circumstances, Mr. Belleau said.
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