Aug 30, 2012 / 8:41 pm
A "culture of delay" within British Columbia's justice system encourages defence lawyers, Crown prosecutors and even judges to act in ways that contribute to unacceptable backlogs in the courts, concludes a government-ordered review that calls for sweeping change at nearly every step of the process.
Lawyer Geoffrey Cowper, appointed in February to examine why so many cases take months or years to make their way through the courts, released a report Thursday that proposes a range of measures to reduce court delays.
But he was adamant such change is possible without significantly increasing spending or hiring a bevy of new judges, notably rejecting the provincial court's request for 18 new judicial appointments.
Instead, Cowper suggested court backlogs are the work of a legal culture that encourages delays and resists change. A speedy justice system has traditionally been seen as a convenience rather than a requirement, he said.
"Timeliness needs to be recognized as a necessity, the culture of delay that has existed for too long must be replaced by a culture of timeliness," Cowper told a news conference as he released his 270-page report.
"The change in culture has to be to take a different view entirely of the role of timeliness," he continued. "In the past, we've looked at it as something that would be nice to have, but, quite frankly, something that's not necessary."
The debate over court resources boiled over last year in the face of what lawyers and judges lamented were lengthy delays.
In 2011, more than 100 cases were stayed because of court delays, and when Cowper began his review, there were roughly 2,500 cases before provincial court that had been there for more than 18 months.
At least two judges used decisions from the bench to criticize the provincial government for underfunding the justice system, particularly when it came to the number of judges currently sitting.
Cowper noted there has been a reduction in that backlog recently, but he said the system is currently not meeting the expectations of victims, suspects or the public in resolving cases in a timely manner.
"We have to move to measures that happen in respect of days and weeks of time, not months and years of time," he said.
A significant problem, said Cowper, is a system that operates on the assumption that every case is destined for trial, when in fact 98 per cent of cases in provincial court are resolved without a trial.
Despite that reality, he said neither the defence nor the Crown are encouraged to work early in the process towards reasonable pleas or sentences, resulting in courts that are poorly utilized as cases that are scheduled for trial are cancelled at the last minute.
The report doesn't make any recommendations about the level of funding for the justice system, and rejects the provincial court's request for 18 new judges.
Instead, Cowper said five new judges should be appointed to immediately deal with the current backlog, and he argued other reforms designed to use court time more efficiently will make significant increases in judicial appointments unnecessary.
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