JUSTICE DELAYED: Policing fallout

Police officers sit outside heavily backed-up B.C. courtrooms, awaiting their turn to be called.

If they’ve come for a trial that has already been adjourned multiple times, it could be their third or even fourth appearance in an attempt to testify in the case.

A Black Press special series investigating the congestion and delays in B.C.’s legal system.

Fourth of a five-part series

Police officers sit outside heavily backed-up B.C. courtrooms, awaiting their turn to be called.

If they’ve come for a trial that has already been adjourned multiple times, it could be their third or even fourth appearance in an attempt to testify in the case.

And if the institutional delay is ruled excessive, the case may be tossed out and the accused will walk free, rendering the officers’ time and effort null and void.

Critics say it all adds up to a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money.

And the hours police spend in court is just the tip of the iceberg.

By the time they set foot in court, officers have spent many hours investigating and interviewing witnesses. DNA tests or other forensic work and expenses may have been ordered.

After a suspect is collared, there is also a mountain of paperwork to be completed, notably the report to Crown counsel requesting charges.

What’s more, in recent years the duty to disclose evidence to the defence has become far more onerous and now consumes much more police time than in the past – particularly if there’s translation and transcription costs involved with non-English speaking witnesses.

“The costs are huge for us,” Delta Police Chief Jim Cessford said, recounting one case where disclosure and transcription costs alone devoured more than $250,000 over six months.

“To have the case denied because of unreasonable delay is really, really frustrating for everyone,” Cessford said. “That really sends a bad message to everyone.”

Cases are increasingly being tossed out over delays across B.C. because jammed courthouses can’t keep up.

More than 2,100 criminal cases have dragged on so long, they are at risk of being quashed.

The reason? A severe shortage of judges – as well as sheriffs and other court support staff – because of chronic provincial underfunding of the system.

Prosecutors are now increasingly triaging incoming charge requests from police because court congestion has forced them to raise the bar for charge approval.

As a result, lesser offences such as non-violent property crimes are less likely to make the cut, particularly if the evidence doesn’t provide a very strong likelihood of conviction.

Even when charges aren’t at risk of being quashed, there are still dangers from delay.

Witnesses may forget details and weaker testimony – from civilians or police officers – can result in the accused walking away unpunished.

The police job of protecting and managing witnesses – tracking them as they move to new cities or provinces and getting them to come back to testify – also becomes more onerous as cases drag on.

“The witnesses lose interest and they tend to cut us out after a while,” Cessford said. “They lose confidence in the system. They think ‘this is not justice, this is not working’.”

Langley City Mayor Peter Fassbender fears too many suspected criminals aren’t even getting into court in the first place.

They’re being turned aside by prosecutors who can’t justify loading so-called minor cases into the already jammed system.

And he suspects police increasingly aren’t pursuing cases they know will never get to court.

“People are frustrated by that and the police are frustrated by it,” said Fassbender, who co-chairs the Lower Mainland District RCMP/Mayors’ Consultative Forum and sits on Metro Vancouver’s policing issues committee.

He said there are too many prolific offenders with numerous charges on their files who never seem to suffer consequences.

It all threatens to erode public confidence in the justice system among law-abiding citizens and weaken the deterrent of penalties for the criminally inclined.

Too many defendants and skilled defence lawyers know how to exploit delays, he said.

Cities in the region are intensely concerned about rising policing costs.

Surrey alone pays $97 million a year for RCMP operating costs, one-third of the city’s budget.

Surrey RCMP officers spent nearly 9,200 hours in court last year.

(Abbotsford Police say local costs are difficult to calculate because while officer overtime for court is tracked, the majority of court time is on duty and does not appear on court or overtime documentation.)

Fassbender points out that if officers appear in court on their regular work shifts, that’s time they aren’t available to actually police the community, forcing detachments to backfill with other staff.

Either way, Fassbender said, delays in court translate into more taxpayer dollars being spent and sometimes fewer boots on the ground to patrol communities.

Criminologist Daryl Plecas of the University of the Fraser Valley says there’s not enough judges, prosecutors or courthouses to deal with the caseload.

He traces the rise in congestion to government’s decision nine years ago to close two dozen courthouses across B.C.

“Whose brainchild was that?” Plecas asked. “You in effect narrowed that funnel such that no matter what police do, the capacity of the court system is only so much. Only an idiot would think that was sustainable.”

Attrition resulting in fewer sitting judges and reduced court time came despite a growing population, more police officers being hired, and a greatly increased complexity of cases.

For example, an impaired driving trial that once took a couple of hours can now take three days. Some police officers do nothing but handle disclosure requirements.

And court delay means a longer, more challenging job of protecting witnesses in serious crimes, Plecas said.

Some relief could be on the way.

New administrative penalties instead of charges for impaired driving may mean much fewer drunk drivers clogging the courts, Plecas said.

That might – over time – help reduce the court case backlog, which Plecas believes is the main reason behind the reform that some observers have criticized as a de facto decriminalization of impaired driving.

“What they’ve in effect done is dump those cases,” he said.

 

BY THE NUMBERS

27 per cent increase in number of police officers in B.C. from 2001 to 2011 (7,279 to 9,261).

13 per cent decrease in number of provincial court judges over same period (145 to 128).