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Justice Minister Rob Nicholson in the House of Commons on Nov. 1.

Chris Wattie/Reuters/Chris Wattie/Reuters

Complex criminal trials that stretch on for months - sometimes years - and cost taxpayers millions of dollars are the target of new federal legislation that aims to streamline the process and get faster convictions.

In unveiling the Fair and Efficient Trial Act, which takes a multi-pronged approach to reducing the complexity of mammoth criminal legal proceedings, the government said cases that take a long time are hard on the justice system. Those cases are also at increased risk of eventually being thrown out.

Just getting jurors to stick around for the duration can sometimes be a difficult proposition.

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"Unfortunately, it's become more difficult to meet one of the legitimate expectations we have of our justice system, ensuring that trials take place and are completed within a reasonable period of time," Justice Minister Rob Nicholson told reporters.

"The changes we are proposing today would help streamline procedures so that those involved in organized crime, white-collar crime or terrorism-related offences are brought to justice swiftly."

"Mega-trials can take up a lot of court time and generate excessive delays - increasing the risk of mistrial."

The major plank of the legislation introduced by the Justice Minister is a provision allowing for the appointment of case-management judges who would be able to impose deadlines on the various parties and encourage them to simplify proceedings by narrowing the issues, making admissions and reaching agreements.

The case-management judge, who would be separate to the trial judge, would also have the power to decide preliminary issues such as disclosure motions and those related to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The bill would allow for joint hearings when similar evidence is to be presented in separate but related cases. The government says that would reduce duplication and cut court times.

Similarly, when a judge orders that two people accused in the same crime should stand trial separately, preliminary issues that pertain to both cases could be heard before the cases are split.

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And in situations when a mistrial is declared and a new trial is ordered, the court would not have to revisit all of the preliminary issues that preceded the original trial unless it was determined that justice required such action.

Anthony Sheppard, a law expert at the University of British Columbia, said the extensive forensic evidence took up an enormous amount of time at both the Pickton and Air India trials. And, with Air India in particular, there was much battling between expert witnesses for the defence and the prosecution.

So finding a better way to handle expert evidence would expedite large criminal proceedings, said Prof. Sheppard.

But he has concerns about the appointment of case-management judges. While those types of judges are already playing a role in civil proceedings, they are an intrusion on the adversarial system of trial, said Prof. Sheppard.

"Ordinarily, the parties make their own arrangements, not under the supervision of a judge," he said. "The pretrial skirmishes are part of the criminal procedure."

The Conservatives have labeled this week Justice Week on Parliament Hill. They plan to roll out new crime legislation and reintroduce some of the crime bills that died when Prime Minister Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament last winter.

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Canadian megatrials

Three cases that took time, money and patience from the past decade:

Galloway Boys

The trial of the gang known as the Galloway Boys ended up being the largest street-gang prosecution in Ontario history. In October of 2004, Tyshan Riley was charged by Toronto police in the shooting death of Brenton Charlton and the attempted murder of Leonard Bell. Mr. Riley and two of his associates were finally convicted in July, 2009, after a criminal proceeding that involved 17 defence lawyers, eight Crown attorneys and unprecedented security measures, including officers patrolling the hallways of the courthouse with semi-automatic weapons and riot gear.

Air India

The investigation and prosecution that followed the bombing of Air India Flight 182 in 1985 lasted nearly 20 years and ended up being the most expensive criminal proceeding in Canadian history with a final price tag of $130-million. The trial itself took place between April, 2003, and December, 2004, in a special courtroom in Vancouver that was built at a cost of $7.2-million. The accused, Ajaib Singh Bagri and Ripudaman Singh Malik, were arrested in June, 2001. They were ultimately found not guilty in March, 2005, by a judge who determined the evidence against them to be inadequate.

Robert Pickton

Robert Pickton was charged in February, 2002, with the murder of 26 women who had disappeared from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. It took five years to convict him of six counts of second-degree murder. The trial, which was one of the longest and most complex to be handled by the Canadian justice system, cost $46-million. It began in January, 2006, and ended in December, 2007. The jury heard testimony from 128 witnesses.

Gloria Galloway

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Gloria Galloway has been a journalist for almost 30 years. She worked at the Windsor Star, the Hamilton Spectator, the National Post, the Canadian Press and a number of small newspapers before being hired by The Globe and Mail as deputy national editor in 2001. Gloria returned to reporting two years later and joined the Ottawa bureau in 2004. More

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