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Judge delays start of solitary-confinement trial to wait for federal changes

Adam Capay was isolated in an acrylic glass-lined cell for more than four years without trial.

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The start of a landmark trial on the use of solitary confinement in Canada has been pushed to July from January, after the federal government argued new legislation could render the issues at the heart of the lawsuit moot.

The B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the John Howard Society of Canada sued the federal government in January, 2015, over the use of solitary confinement in prisons. The two groups said Canada remained committed to a broken and dangerous system that increased inmates' suffering, even as jurisdictions around the world scaled back its use.

The Globe and Mail has written extensively on the use of solitary confinement in Canada, including the 2010 death of Eddie Snowshoe after 162 consecutive days in segregation, and the more recent plight of Adam Capay, who was isolated in an acrylic glass-lined cell for more than four years without trial. The United Nations has said more than 15 days in solitary confinement constitutes torture.

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The Attorney-General of Canada filed an application in the B.C. Supreme Court last month to adjourn the trial stemming from the lawsuit, arguing "there is a reasonable expectation that new legislation will render the issues moot."

On Thursday, Justice Peter Leask granted the adjournment and said both sides had agreed to it.

"I think this adjournment was in the interest of justice and may promote simplification of the case. I'm happy that counsel were able to agree about it," he said.

Caily DiPuma, acting litigation director for the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said outside court the trial was adjourned to "give Canada one last opportunity to make reforms to the use of administrative segregation that they've publicly promised to make."

Ms. DiPuma then referred to a story that appeared in The Globe in October, in which federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said he was working on a number of reforms that would overhaul the use of solitary confinement. The minister said at the time the new measures would include prison renovations, programming improvements and, potentially, a 15-day limit on segregation placements. The changes were expected to go to cabinet before the next federal budget in the spring.

"We are going to spend every day between now and then both preparing to start the trial on July 4th if we don't see adequate reforms, and to ensure that if reforms are proposed, that they meet the standards that we all know, that Canada knows, need to be met," Ms. DiPuma said.

A Department of Justice spokesperson, when asked for comment on the adjournment, confirmed the start of the trial had been delayed and said the plaintiffs had agreed "to give the government the opportunity to make reforms to administrative segregation."

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Upon filing their lawsuit, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and John Howard Society called Canada's solitary-confinement regime unconstitutional, and argued it led to the deaths of prisoners and discriminated against mentally ill and aboriginal inmates.

The Attorney-General of Canada, in its response to the notice of civil claim, denied the Charter rights of inmates had been violated. It challenged the research on the effects of long-term segregation, saying the impacts had been inconclusive and the legal action should be dismissed with costs.

In its application last month, the federal government said it was applying to adjourn "on the basis of the government's stated intent to make changes and improvements to administrative segregation."

It also said the matter was not ready for trial, due to extensive document requests.

The plaintiffs initially opposed the request for adjournment, arguing the parties appeared to be on schedule for Jan. 3.

In addition to the adjournment, the court agreed Thursday to allow the advocacy group West Coast LEAF to intervene in the case.

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A lawyer for the group said it would focus on the impact solitary confinement has had on women in prisons in particular.

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