Backlogged Justice: How the Government is Working to Fix Unreasonable Judicial Delays in Criminal Cases

The liberal democratic criminal justice system is founded on the notion that people are innocent until proven guilty, no one gets imprisoned without just cause, and that everyone accused of a crime is entitled to a fair and speedy trial. That said, sometimes the justice system is not so just. Sometimes you get a racist or misogynist judge, and sometimes it takes so long for your case to actually go to trial that you are stuck in pre-trial detention.

We are going to discuss the latter problem.

The Quebec Justice System is suffering from a backlog, and it has been suffering from this backlog for over a year now. It is so problematic that some suspected criminals are walking free, while innocents rot in jail awaiting their trials.

In November 2016 four accused drug traffickers, one of which was Richard Hudon, a founding member of the Quebec Hells Angels, got a stay of proceedings because they had to wait over sixty months for their case to go to trial.

A stay of proceedings can be granted if an accused convinces the court that putting them on trial would be an “abuse of process” that would violate principles of fundamental justice guaranteed by our constitution. The effect of such stays is that the case may never be prosecuted, will never go to trial. This allowing the accused to walk free.

It is therefore only granted in cases of severe abuse. An excessive wait time for your trial can be a violation of your constitutional rights but fortunately, once a problem is recognized, the judicial system which is ever evolving gets to work trying to fix it.

The system got started in the summer of 2016 with the Supreme Court ruling in R v. Jordan.

Jordan was arrested in 2008 for his participation in a dial-a-dope operation in BC in which customers could call and order drugs delivered. Jordan spent two months in jail awaiting his trial, and another four years under restrictive bail conditions while awaiting trial.

In the Jordan case, the Supreme Court was asked to properly define section 11 (b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which says that “Any person charged with an offence has the right…(b) to be tried within a reasonable time”. The Supreme Court came up with the following rules:

  • Criminal trials in Provincial Court must be completed in eighteen months but that increases to thirty months if said trial was preceded by a preliminary inquiry
  • For cases to be heard in Superior Court, trials must be completed in thirty months
  • In cases where there is a claim that a trial occurring within this limit is deemed unreasonable, it’s up to the defense to prove it
  • If the trial takes longer to conclude than the eighteen or thirty month limit it presumed to be an unreasonable delay it’s up to the Crown (the prosecution) to prove otherwise

That said, Quebec and other provincial governments are under a lot of pressure to meet the Supreme Court’s criteria and make sure criminal trials are concluded more quickly.

The Quebec government and Provincial Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée have been working to curb the delays.

In December 2016, the government announced that they were going to inject a hundred and seventy-five million dollars into the justice system over a period of four years in order to hire more judges, prosecutors, and support staff. They’re also launching an eighteen month pilot project to make lesser offenses non judicial with the plan of using community service instead of incarceration for offenders. In addition, on June 21, 2017, Justice Minister Vallée announced the hiring of twenty legal aid lawyers and support staff to deal with the backlog.

But Quebec cannot deal with the backlog alone.

Superior Court judges are needed to facilitate more trials, and Quebec is calling on the federal government to help. Unlike Provincial Court judges which are appointed by the provincial government, only the federal government can appoint them judges to the Superior Court. Quebec is asking for the appointment of ten new judges and the sooner they are hired, the easier it will be to address the backlog.

In the Jordan case the Supreme Court said that “The ability to provide fair trials within a reasonable time is an indicator of the health and proper functioning of the system itself.” Until the backlog is fully dealt with, we can safely say that our justice system is suffering from poor health. Fortunately, it’s a problem our governments are ready and willing to fix.

Let the healing begin.

* Featured image: the Quebec Court of Appeals in Montreal, via WikiMedia Commons

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