Will law reform provide court relief?
Last of a five-part series
Despite a chorus of voices calling for an emergency infusion of money to unclog B.C.’s critically congested court system, the provincial government has no such plans.
In fact, more cuts are coming.
The B.C. Provincial Court warned in its extraordinary Justice Delayed report last fall that another 17 judges must be hired just to get back to 2005 levels and stop the growth of the case backlog that increasingly lets criminals walk free because of unacceptable delays.
Instead, February’s provincial budget approved more cuts for 2011 – one per cent for the judiciary, eight per cent for court services and six per cent for prosecution services to carve out another $14.5 million – followed by a funding freeze for the following two years until 2014.
Years of attrition have whittled down the number of judges and sheriffs and increasingly complex, longer cases take up more time for prosecutors.
More than 2,100 criminal cases are now at risk of being tossed out of court due to delays that threaten to violate the accused’s right to be tried within a reasonable time.
As recounted in previous instalments in this investigative series, longer waits are hurting victims of spousal abuse, children in custody battles and other family law matters.
Defendants are less likely to plea bargain and more apt to go to trial to try to exploit the long delays in the system.
Even repeat speeders are challenging traffic tickets and then getting them quashed when they drag on too long in the courts.
And critics say the the time and resources police spend investigating suspects who never go to trial is an unacceptable waste.
“Clearly we have some challenges in certain areas,” B.C. Attorney General Barry Penner said in an interview with Black Press.
But he confirmed there will be further cuts this year and no new cash for the foreseeable future.
“If we had extra dollars available that would be one of the things I’d be interested in considering,” Penner said. “But there’s a limited amount of money in taxpayers’ pockets. We heard that throughout the HST debate. There’s not an unlimited appetite for taxation.”
Instead, he sees relief coming from various reforms that don’t cost more money.
B.C.’s shift last fall to much tougher administrative roadside penalties for drivers caught with a blood-alcohol level over 0.05 alarmed some motorists who wondered whether they could drink any alcohol at all on an evening out.
Restaurants and bars suffered a drop in liquor sales.
The number of conventional charges police laid against impaired drivers also plunged. That’s starting to take pressure off the court system.
“If you can get a big reduction – and we’re seeing a 75 to 80 per cent reduction in the number of new impaired driving cases entering the court system – that creates the opportunity for other matters to be heard sooner,” Penner said.
Impaired cases were taking up to half the time in some B.C. courthouses, he said.
Eliminating many of the cases may have a profound effect on the court delay problem, Penner said.
In three months from December through February, there were 2,000 fewer impaired driving charges laid in B.C. compared to the same period a year ago as a result of the change.
“It’s not the primary reason we did it,” Penner said, calling the freeing up of court time a “co-benefit.”
The roadside justice may look tougher but some lawyers call it a virtual decriminalization of impaired driving, allowing drunks caught behind the wheel to avoid a criminal record, a Canada-wide one-year driving ban and, if convicted a second time, a minimum 30-day jail term.
Penner counters that the public safety results look promising because fewer people now drive after drinking.
Preliminary figures point to a 40 per cent drop in the number of impaired drivers on the road and fewer deaths as a result.
But some observers question how much court time will be saved.
They suggest police officers freed from drunk driving investigations and related paperwork will be back on patrol faster and finding other criminals to charge, adding cases back into the courts.
The attorney general is also optimistic other reforms will save time in the courts.
He points to a pilot project underway in Victoria that aims to streamline the court process and reduce the number of pre-trial appearances.
There should be no need, Penner said, to have up to seven court appearances – as now sometimes happens – before a case is heard.
“How many pre-trial appearances do you really need to have before you have a trial?”
The change will require cooperation of judges, lawyers and prosecutors.
Penner also said work is underway on new initiatives to settle family law disputes in less adversarial ways, such as mediation and discussion where possible.
“They’re having some success,” he said. “There’s undoubtedly more we can do in that regard.”
He said another potential avenue to reduce court congestion is through greater use of technology – from electronic filing of documents to more quickly distribute information to participants, to increased use of video conferencing.
How much money would it take to simply do what the judges recommend and bring court staffing levels back up to what existed six years ago?
Adding 17 judges costs more than strictly their annual salaries of about $235,000 each plus pensions and benefits.
Additional sheriffs, prosecutors, court clerks and even janitorial staff must accompany them.
All in, the cost is about $1.5 million per judge.
Solving the problem would therefore cost roughly $25 to $30 million a year in additional funding – as well as a decision to forestall the further cuts now planned.
That’s roughly a six per cent increase in the $458-million operating budget of the attorney general’s ministry.
Advocates describe it as barely a rounding error in terms of the multi-billion-dollar health care budget.
But Penner said increased funding is not an option right now.
He cited twin uncertainties clouding the province’s finances: the tepid economic recovery that could falter due to rising oil prices or other factors; and the fate of the Harmonized Sales Tax, which if defeated in this summer’s referendum could force B.C. to repay $1.6 billion in transition benefits provided by Ottawa.
“If the HST is rejected, that will have significant financial consequences to the treasury in future years,” Penner said.