Numerous reforms have been proposed by a provincial review to address congestion in B.C.'s courts.

Probe finds clogged courts can run smarter, faster

Cowper urges five more judges but no more cash to speed up B.C.'s embattled justice system.

Deep reforms are needed in B.C.’s congested court system to speed justice and prevent accused criminals from walking free from unacceptable trial delays,  according to the findings of a government-ordered probe.

B.C. Justice Reform Initiative chair Geoffrey Cowper concludes a “culture of delay” remains in place in the justice system because no enforcement mechanism exists to break through persistent barriers to change.

His 272-page report offers numerous recommendations and observations on the problems in the system.

“There is a general sense of frustration and anxiety that there is not enough money,” the report said.

Cowper found even simple criminal cases continue to take too long to get to trial despite a sharp drop in the criminal backlog over the last two years, largely due to the province’s shift to punishing impaired drivers with roadside penalties rather than prosecution in court.

In B.C. Supreme Court, the time to reach trial and the length of trials is rising in part because of a struggle to manage highly complex, large cases.

He proposes a Criminal Justice and Public Safety Council to transparently oversee the coordination of the legal system to try to make it more efficient.

It would also track the court backlog and recommend to the Justice Minister how much money and staff the system needs.

Cowper recommended five new judges be immediately added to boost capacity, but said the Provincial Court’s call for 18 more judges to help reduce the case backlog is not justified.

More than 100 cases were stayed last year because of excessive delays in getting to trial, violating the rights of the accused, and the number of cases older than 18 months in the provincial court system topped 2,500 before starting to decline.

Several judges have criticized the lack of court resources in rulings throwing out long-delayed cases.

Cowper declined to make a recommendation on whether overall funding for the criminal justice system is sufficient.

Costs have climbed, Cowper found, but mainly to fund salary and benefit increases – not more court capacity.

Much can be done through more efficient use of existing resources, he suggested.

While longer delays have compounded the problems, speeding up the time to trial would help on multiple fronts.

Defence would have to be ready to sooner to respond to charges – perhaps opening up more plea bargains that avoid the need for trial.

Accused criminals wouldn’t be held in custody as long, so the consequences of denying them bail wouldn’t be as severe.

And the very high volume of charges being laid for breaching bail conditions would be sharply cut.

Cowper also recommends more spending on legal aid, financed through a tariff.

Also proposed is sending trials initially to an assignment court rather than to individual judges so cases can be handled more efficiently.

Proactive policing has already been a major success but Cowper said more crime reduction gains are possible and a province-wide strategy is needed.

He endorsed earlier findings rejecting the idea of letting police officers lay criminal charges directly, rather than Crown counsel.

The wheels of justice have spun more slowly in B.C. despite a steadily falling crime rate and fewer criminal cases entering the system.

Justice Minister Shirley Bond said the province will study the findings before responding in a white paper this fall outlining planned changes.

“I agree wholeheartedly that improving timeliness, improving outcomes and ensuring efficient justice needs to be at the centre of all reforms,” she said.

NDP critic Leonard Krog said Cowper’s council idea is worth pursuing, as well as a move to more permanent judges, rather than part-timers.

He said the government’s failure to maintain a functioning justice system continues to let the guilty walk free and leaves the efforts of police, prosecutors and court staff “utterly wasted.”

Krog noted a deluge of new criminal cases is heading for provincial jails when the federal government begins imposing new mandatory minimum sentences.

More must be done to divert chronic offenders with addictions and mental illness out of court and into treatment, he added.

“It’s going to be costly but it has to be available and that is going to be part of the longer term solution,” Krog said. “Police are tired of acting as mental health or social workers.”

Cowper looked only at criminal justice, not the civil courts, Krog noted, adding delays in hearing child custody applications can disrupt years of a young childhood.