The Standing Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs
Senators condemn federal government inaction on court delays
September 29, 2016
Saskatoon - The Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs is shocked and disappointed to learn that vacancies for federally-appointed judges have continued to rise since the release of the committee’s interim report on court delays in August.
The report had called for the federal government to move quickly to fill these vacancies.
The committee is travelling to Vancouver, Calgary and Saskatoon this week to hear evidence as part of its continuing study into delays in Canada’s criminal justice system.
Chief Justice Neil Wittmann of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta said total vacancies for superior courts across Canada have increased to 56 and continue to rise. When the committee presented its preliminary report in August 2016, there were 41 vacancies.
Chief Justice Wittman also noted it takes an average of 22 weeks to fill vacancies for federally-appointed judges in Alberta.
“What we have heard is shocking, to say the least,” said Senator Bob Runciman, chair of the committee.
“This continued short-staffing of our superior courts is leading to charges being stayed almost daily in cases of very serious criminal offences, like sexual assaults against children and trafficking in cocaine.”
Committee deputy chair Senator George Baker said the situation is even more critical because of a recent Supreme Court of Canada decision that set deadlines for the completion of criminal cases. The majority in R. v. Jordan declared that superior court cases must be completed within 30 months of the laying of charges and provincial court cases within 18 months, unless the Crown can show exceptional circumstances justify the delay.
“The combination of an excessive number of vacancies along with the deadlines set by the Supreme Court has created the perfect storm,” Senator Baker said. “The government must act quickly to fill these vacancies in order to maintain public confidence in the justice system.”
Senator Runciman said it should not take 22 weeks or more to fill a judicial vacancy.
“In most cases, retirement dates are known months or years ahead of time,” he said. “We simply must do a better job of ensuring our courts have the judges they need to do their job. Canadians expect justice to be done in a timely manner.”
The committee will continue its study in the coming weeks, with a final report expected next year.
- Section 11 (b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms says any person charged with an offence has the right to be tried within a reasonable time.
- In 2013-14, the median time between the laying of a charge to the case’s final disposition was 123 days in Canada’s provincial courts. In the country’s superior courts, the median completion time was 514 days.
- The Supreme Court applied the principles outlined in R. v. Jordan to a companion case, R. v. Williamson, which saw a man convicted of child sexual offences set free:
- The accused had been found guilty in 2011 of buggery, indecent assault and gross indecency after using a position of trust to engage in sexual activity with a 12-year-old boy at least 60 times between 1979 and 1980. The complainant had reported the abuse to police in 2008 and charges were laid in 2009.
- The accused was sentenced to four years in prison but the Court of Appeal for Ontario set aside his convictions and entered a stay of proceedings on the basis of unreasonable delay.
- A majority of Supreme Court judges found the 35.5-month delay between the laying of charges and the end of the trial exceeded the ceiling established in Jordan and were unreasonable. The majority upheld the appeals court’s decision.
Click to read a copy of the committee’s interim report, Delaying Justice is Denying Justice: An urgent need to address court delays in Canada.
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