Long, confusing process difficult for victims
For most people, the court system is a foreign thing they enter maybe once or twice in their lives, generally under unhappy circumstances.
For those who find themselves in that situation, the process can be opaque, frustrating and lengthy.
“It’s very confusing, because most people aren’t familiar with our criminal justice system,” said victim services co-ordinator with the Moose Jaw Police Service Donna Blondeau. “Some people have no idea. They’ve never had any involvement with the courts or the police or anything. It’s a whole different world for them, and unfortunately, it’s probably at one of the worst times in their life that they have to endure that.”
Recognizing this, the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs spent more than a year interviewing 138 witnesses and visiting courts across the country to study the issue of court delays. Earlier this week, they released a damning report citing those delays for a drop in public confidence in the justice system.
“The result has spoken loudly and clearly, and the current delays in our courts are unacceptable and it needs to change now,” said Saskatchewan Senator Denise Batters, a member of the committee and proponent of the report. “We can’t wait any further.”
This is especially true in light of the Supreme Court ruling in R v. Jordan last year that imposed strict deadlines on the length of criminal processes in Canada: 18 months in Provincial Courts and 30 months in Supreme Courts, which in Saskatchewan is the Court of Queen’s Bench.
That may seem generous enough, but considering many cases can take two or three years to come to conclusion, it’s a significant change.
“The numerous adjournments are very difficult for the victims that we’re assisting,” said Blondeau. “They don’t understand why there are delays, and that can be quite upsetting to them. As a matter of fact, victims have said to us on numerous occasions, ‘I feel like I’m being re-victimized.’”
Furthermore, as accused persons have the right to a speedy trial, the only remedy for these delays is a stay of proceedings, which means the person being accused of a crime is released and the charges essentially dropped. This is one of the main issues addressed by the report, which suggests other possible considerations for the accused, including a reduction in sentence or perhaps monetary compensation. Batters said there have been many cases that have been thrown out of court as a result of delays, sometimes even when they involve the most atrocious crimes.
“Across Canada there have been two first-degree murder charges in the last six months that have been stayed because of court delays,” she told the Times-Herald. “Having those types of cases getting thrown out of court and having criminals essentially going free? That’s a shock to the conscience of our communities and it’s a denial of justice. It undermines the public’s confidence in the Canadian criminal justice system and it re-victimizes the victims of crime.”
According to Public Prosecutions for the province, there have been four cases since July 2016 where people accused of crimes have gotten off as a result of delays in the court system. There were also five cases in which the defence asked for a stay as a result of delays and were refused. None of those cases were in Moose Jaw.
The senate committee made 50 recommendations on everything from the use of technology to avoid simple matters like adjournments going before judges, to putting systems in place to measure courthouse performance. Batters said, however, that one of the most important recommended changes involves filling empty judicial positions.
“It’s not a magic solution. It doesn’t solve everything, but it’s something the federal government itself can do and they can do it right now,” she said, adding that as of June 1, there were 81 such vacant positions across the country.
Some of the recommendations pointed to Saskatchewan as a leader in terms of methods to reduce the load on the court system, including specialized courts for domestic violence and drug treatment, among others. The province also has shadow courts, which are unusual in other jurisdictions, that function like airlines or hotels that overbook with the expectation of some cases falling through.
“Rather than have a courtroom sit empty, and those are precious places because you can only have as many trials as you have courtrooms, they overbook with a modest number,” Batters said.
The report places much of the blame for unreasonable delays on a culture of complacency, something Batters said she witnessed in her years spent as a lawyer in Saskatchewan, as well as during the study period of the report. She recounted a case in Calgary in which a lawyer asked for an 18th or 19th adjournment on a file, and the judge granted it, but told them it would be the last time.
“I thought, ‘what happened the other 17 times?’” Batters said.
The Senate report isn’t binding, and Batters said that from here, she hopes the federal government – as well as provincial and territorial administrations – take the recommendations on board and begin implementing them. While there is no price tag given for the proposed changes, she said not all the problems addressed could be solved with more money. Batters also hopes judges and court officials will read the report and use it as something of a guidebook to work towards greater efficiency.
That efficiency, however, cannot come soon enough for those sitting on the other side of the bench.
“All the years that I’ve been doing this, it’s one of the things victims have expressed,” said Blondeau. “They say, ‘Well, they’ve admitted to the crime, so how come this is taking so long? How can the court allow this to continue?’”
While she doesn’t have an explanation for it, Blondeau said she refers people to the Crown Prosecutors’ office to voice their concerns and find a bit more understanding.
“Unfortunately, I think a lot of people get the Hollywood version: that you go into court, they plead guilty, or the trial takes place almost immediately, and it’s all finished with,” she said. “Unfortunately, that’s the impression people are left with because the majority of people, their involvement with the court is either nil or very little.”
As a victim services co-ordinator, Blondeau said she was glad she and her colleagues are around to help victims, but there is only so much they can do. The process is taxing on the person themselves, as well as on their family and friends. Add to that the mysterious nature of the majority of court proceedings to the general public, and victims can be frustrated when they expect a matter to be dealt with, only to see it put off for a few weeks, a month, or even more.
“Each and every time, it’s like, ‘Oh my goodness, how many times can this be adjourned?’” said Blondeau. “Cases that go on for two, three years, that’s not uncommon. That’s just something that is expected. Is it fair to the victim? Absolutely not.”