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Editorials Globe editorial: How to speed up Canada’s stalled courts

Never in Canadian history have so many taken so long to prosecute so few.

The Supreme Court says the criminal courts are suffering from a "culture of complacency," leading to constitutionally unacceptable trial delays. It may not be right about the remedy – last year's R. v. Jordan ruling means charges as serious as murder are being thrown out for exceeding the court's maximum allowable time to come to trial, thereby causing real harm to victims, and leading to another kind of injustice.

But the Court is right that Canada's system is broken. And it's worse than "complacency." The word implies stasis, but statistics suggest that our criminal courts are in fact evolving – backwards. Our too-slow courts are getting even slower.

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Last week, the Senate released a bracing report on slow-mo justice, and how to speed it up. Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and her provincial counterparts should read it, photocopy it, and put its recommendations into practice. The Senate committee on legal and constitutional affairs, led by Conservative Bob Runciman and independent Liberal George Baker, has done a superb job of documenting symptoms and identifying remedies.

Why are Canada's criminal courts so clogged up? It's not because their workload is increasing. On the contrary, it has been decades since there were so few crimes to deal with.

Between 2005 and 2015, the number of crimes committed, as reported by police, dropped by 20 per cent, according to Statistics Canada. And not only did crime numbers fall, so did the seriousness of offences. Over the last decade, StatsCan's "Crime Severity Index," which combines volume and severity of criminality, has dropped by nearly a third.

Thanks to declining crime, the number of criminal court charges fell by more than nine per cent between 2005 and 2015. But at the same time, the number of cases disposed of by Canada's courts dropped by 14 per cent.

The number of cases before the courts is steadily falling – but the number of cases the courts can handle is falling even faster.

That leaves the criminal courts, despite a falling workload, further behind than ever, and setting new records for inefficiency.

The statistics suggest the system is not merely stuck, but actually operating in reverse gear. Court inefficiency is in a race with falling crime. Court inefficiency is winning.

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The Senate report points fingers at every part of the justice system. And it names judges as a big part of the problem. They are in charge of what happens in a courtroom, and many delays occur because, in the name of collegiality and not rocking the boat, judges allow them to occur. The Senate says judges must use better case management, "imposing deadlines and challenging unnecessary adjournments."

At the same time, however, courts, provinces and the federal government urgently need to change many aspects of court procedure. It has to be taken out of the era of vellum and stamped wax seals, literally and figuratively.

The court system is still poorly computerized, which means preparation and release of documents is inefficient. Related to that, many routine procedural matters are sucking up court time, because they must take place in front of judge, with defendants, lawyers and police having to appear in person.

The Senate recommends that lesser judicial officers, not judges, handle some routine procedural matters. It also says that "video-conferencing and computer systems should be developed to eliminate the need for many routine in-person court appearances and allow easier communications among courts, legal counsel, accused persons, victims, witnesses and offenders." Yes, please.

And then there's the shocking fact of how much court time is taken up by matters that either shouldn't be in court, or could be dealt with much more quickly. According to the Senate, 23 per cent of the cases completed in adult criminal court are so-called administration of justice offences – namely breach of release conditions or failure to appear in court. There has to be a better, faster way to deal with an additional charge against someone awaiting trial.

The same goes for one of the most common offences: impaired driving. The Senate says it represents about 10 per cent of the most common offences tried in court. Some provinces deal with drivers with lower levels of blood alcohol through administrative penalties – immediate fines and license suspensions – rather than sending these cases to criminal trial. It makes sense. So does figuring out how to divert more people with mental health and addiction issues out of the criminal law system.

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The goal of these reforms is not to short-change victims, or allow criminals to evade responsibility. It is to ensure that justice is done: speedy trials for defendants, fair and measured punishment for the guilty, rehabilitation for offenders – and more justice for all.

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