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B.C. to hire nine new judges in bid to clear backlog

Justice Minister Shirley Bond, whose ministry oversees disaster response, announced Sunday that there would be a full review of what happened.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

After months of criticism from lawyers and the opposition, the B.C. government has announced it will appoint nine new Provincial Court judges.

The appointments will take effect over the next two months, and the judges will be assigned to courtrooms across the province.

Tuesday's announcement appeared to come out of left field. In response to a justice-system review in October, Attorney-General Shirley Bond indicated the court backlog could be reduced without hiring new judges. Ms. Bond had also said the B.C. Liberal government would not merely pump more money into the $1-billion justice system.

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A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail on Tuesday that funding for the new appointments will come from the Provincial Court's existing budget allocation. She did not provide further details. Ms. Bond would not agree to an interview.

B.C.'s court backlog has been well-chronicled, with more than 100 cases stayed last year due to excessive delays. More than 60 cases have been stayed for the same reason so far this year, and thousands more are in danger.

Each judge costs the province nearly $1.6-million annually when additional costs – such as court administration staff, sheriffs, and prosecution services – are considered.

Samiran Lakshman, spokesman for the B.C. Crown Counsel Association, called Tuesday's announcement a "very positive first step." Mr. Lakshman, however, said there's much more work to be done. He said funding for legal aid – or a shortage thereof – remains a serious problem.

"Unrepresented litigants are not the efficient way to run a justice system, whether it be in family court or criminal court," he said in an interview.

Leonard Krog, the attorney-general critic for the opposition B.C. New Democratic Party, said he too was pleased with the appointments. He said it was welcome news for British Columbians accessing the justice system.

But Mr. Krog added that the appointments should have been made long ago and said they are a clear acknowledgment of what the Liberal government has denied – "the court system is in crisis in British Columbia."

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In addition to the appointments, the province also announced two new projects aimed at reducing the backlogs. The first, which will focus on child protection cases, will launch next spring. The second, which will tackle the backlog of criminal cases, will start later in 2013.

As part of the agreement between the province and the Office of the Chief Judge, the equivalent of one full-time judge will be assigned to the projects.

Thomas Crabtree, the Provincial Court's chief judge, declined to be interviewed on Tuesday. A written statement did not provide further details on the projects.

"It is a priority for the court to reduce the current backlog of cases," he wrote. "I believe that we have several key initiatives that will support our efforts in this area. Today's announcement helps move us towards that goal."

In her written statement, Ms. Bond said the new judges and the projects "signal a shared understanding by all parties that changes need to be made to improve the justice system."

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