Justice system in crisis

Imagine being hurt, either in a car crash or in an assault. In the case of a car crash, you’d expect that you could sue the negligent driver and promptly get compensation for your losses. In the case of an assault, you’d expect that Crown Counsel could prosecute the offender. Those assumptions are reasonable. But, given budget cutbacks, don’t be surprised if things change...

In November 2011, one of our most learned, Chief Justice Robert J. Bauman of the Supreme Court of British Columbia, spoke about the dismantling of B.C.’s legal system. This column echoes Chief Justice Bauman’s words.

For some background, the judicial branch is one of the three branches of government, along with the legislative and executive branches, which are made up of, put simply, those bureaucrats and elected officials who debate, make, and administer laws and other government business. The judicial branch is comprised of the Canadian courts, deciding cases and interpreting laws, ensuring that justice is done.

In theory, all three sectors are equal. In reality, though, the judicial branch depends on the other branches for funding. Without proper funding, the justice system cannot adequately function.

The consequences of inadequate funding are serious and can be seen by looking at American courts, which have seen significant budget cuts.

In California, budget cuts of $350 million from county trial courts have resulted in almost 50% of its county trial courts becoming insolvent. The National Centre of State Courts reported that 3200 courthouses in America are eroded or deficient. An Ohio courthouse stopped accepting new cases because it could not afford to buy paper. The state of New Hampshire has suspended all civil cases for one year to deal with backlog, made worse by inadequate funding.

B.C. isn’t far behind.

Between 2008 and fiscal 2012/2013, the Court Services’ budget reduced by 10 per cent. Among the results is less court staff, which has terrible echoing effects.

Court clerks maintain the operation of a courtroom on behalf of the judge and perform several invaluable functions. If there are no court clerks, then courtrooms cannot operate and scheduled matters are adjourned.

To assist with the lack of court clerks, registry staff are juggled into courtrooms to work as clerks. This creates additional problems, though, as registries are also inadequately staffed.

Registry staff are responsible for several invaluable functions, including accepting and managing documents, processing orders, and assisting citizens with questions. In the last several years, shortages in registries have resulted in considerable delay, sometimes over six months, in processing orders. In the case of child custody matters, six months can feel like an eternity.

Also, in June 2011, the B.C. government cut approximately 30 sheriff positions, jeopardizing the safety and security of witnesses, lawyers, the public, and court staff/officials. Although the cuts were later reconsidered and sheriffs were restored, several criminal matters had to be adjourned, adding to the backlog of cases.

There is also a shortage of judges as appointments to the bench have not kept pace with retirements/departures. For example, in the Provincial Court, there has been a loss of more than 17 judges from 2005 to 2010, worsening the backlog, especially for criminal cases.

What is the result of a backlog of cases? Right now, in the case of civil lawsuits, such as personal injury or business-related lawsuits, it can mean significant delays (i.e. many years) in getting your case heard and attaining justice. In the case of criminal law, alleged offenders can be ‘let off’ without standing trial, a scenario which should have everyone concerned and a topic that I will discuss in greater detail next week.

The court/justice system is essential to our democratic society and efforts to balance the budget can never translate into taking money away from the courts. There is no fat to trim and any budget cuts slice into bone.

**The information contained in this column should not be treated by readers as legal advice and should not be relied on without detailed legal counsel being sought.

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About the Author

Jeff Zilkowsky is a lawyer practicing at MacLean Law in the Lower Mainland and in Kelowna, and focuses his practice on family law and litigation.  

In his column, Jeff provides information about current legal events or points of interest or concern relating to the law. 

The information contained in Jeff’s column should not be used or relied upon as legal advice.

Comments are always appreciated and encouraged, so don’t hesitate to email Jeff at [email protected]

Visit Jeff’s website at www.jeffzilkowsky.com or visit the website of MacLean Law.

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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