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Ottawa should never have stopped appointing judges

There is a whiff of Rome burning in the background as the Trudeau government fiddles with the way it appoints judges. Our superior courts are clearly suffering for a lack of federally appointed judges – a measurable crisis with a painful cost – and yet Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould will only say that she will name new judges "soon."

Her government's review of how judges are named must be completed first, she insists, the consequences be damned. All in all, it feels as if politics is derailing a federal responsibility that is critical to the proper maintenance of the country's justice system. The fallout is plain to see.

In Alberta last week, a judge stayed a first-degree murder charge because it had taken more than five years to come to trial. A dramatic shortage of judges on the Court of Queen's Bench, which hears all major criminal trials, has led the province to the "breaking point," says Chief Justice Neil Wittmann of the court.

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Read more: Canadian courts languish as vacancies on bench remain unfilled

More murder charges are at risk of being stayed in Alberta. And civil trials are now being scheduled for 2019, an unnecessary delay that can be painful for litigants, especially in family-law cases.

In Nova Scotia, the top court has had to reschedule multiple trials for lack of judges. In British Columbia, delays are routine, especially for civil trials related to automobile accidents.

These delays can occur for a number of reasons, including overloaded prosecutors and the manipulations of defence lawyers. But much of the blame falls on the federal government, which has built up a backlog of 61 vacancies on superior courts across Canada – the highest in a decade.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould insists that her review must take priority. But it makes little sense to bring the appointment of judges to a full stop while carrying out the review. The current appointment system was working well enough to allow it to keep going. Ottawa should have continued to name judges while it undertook its review, instead of leaving the justice system shorthanded and on the brink of chaos.

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