Premier Christy Clark has drawn a line in the sand, telling the key players in B.C.'s justice system they'll need to squeeze out budget inefficiencies because her government won't pump more cash into the courts.
The Premier unveiled an initiative to reform and "modernize" the justice system, which in recent years has made headlines because of lengthy trial delays and shows of frustration from judges. During a news conference Wednesday at her downtown Vancouver office, Ms. Clark told reporters that instead of continuing to throw money at the $1.4-billion-a-year justice system, her government will launch a review to identify long-term, fiscally responsible solutions.
Her announcement immediately sparked criticism by the NDP that the government isn't addressing the problem that led to more than 100 cases being thrown out of the courts last year, while thousands more hang in peril – that is, chronic underfunding.
The Premier's announcement was the third in what's been a law-and-order week for her Liberal government. Monday, it was the building of a new prison, while Tuesday brought word of the hiring of nine provincial court judges.
"Our crime rate is the lowest that it's been in three decades and the number of cases that is going to court is down as well. And yet the cost and the amount of time that people are waiting for trial is continuing to increase," the Premier said Wednesday. "Cases are being stayed and delayed. It just doesn't add up and we can do better, I believe, with the resources that we have."
The review will be chaired by Geoffrey Cowper, a lawyer with Fasken Martineau, who also served as commission counsel at the Frank Paul inquiry. Mr. Cowper will consult with judges, Crowns, lawyers, police and others to identify issues affecting the public's access to timely justice. He must submit his final report to government by July, for implementation in the fall. He'll be paid $125,000 for the assignment.
Fasken Martineau last year made a $10,000 donation to Ms. Clark's campaign for the party leadership. Mr. Cowper was listed as one of the principal officers in that donation. When asked if there was a conflict of interest, Attorney-General Shirley Bond said Mr. Cowper was the best choice to lead the initiative "because of his willingness to change the status quo and his broad experience within the justice system." She noted Mr. Cowper served as chair of the Legal Services Society for three terms.
When asked what she'll do if Mr. Cowper's recommendations require more justice-system spending, Ms. Clark said she wouldn't pre-judge his report.
"I don't know what the recommendations are going to say. ... If I knew what the answers were already, I wouldn't be appointing Geoff to do this," she said.
"I share the frustration that every British Columbian feels when we see delays, when we see stays in the justice system. It's not right, it's not working, and I'm really frustrated about that. But what we've discovered is just adding more money is not making the problem better."
NDP Leader Adrian Dix said the Liberal Party has been in power for 11 years and the chaos in the justice system is their responsibility. "They have no answers, so we get another review," he said.
Leonard Krog, the NDP's justice critic, added, "To turn to the Legal Services Society and now say find efficiencies is a bit like asking the corpse to sing. It is totally unrealistic to ask for further efficiencies from the Legal Services Society, just as it's ridiculous to ask the Crown to do a better job when you've cut the number of prosecutors."
However, Mark Benton, executive director of the Legal Services Society, welcomed the announcement. He said it's important to reduce costs and improve timeliness. Mr. Benton said he was not concerned that the Premier wouldn't commit to more funding.
"We think that the value we can provide in this conversation is pointing to areas where small investments in legal aid services can yield significant savings in the broader justice system," he said.
B.C. Chief Justice Lance Finch, Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Bauman, and Provincial Court Judge Thomas Crabtree issued a joint statement saying they welcome the opportunity to engage in dialogue on issues facing the courts, as long as the discussion respects the independence of the judiciary.
The review will examine a number of other areas. One is the charge assessment process, which could be changed so police lay charges directly, instead of sending their recommendations to Crown. Another is the scheduling process, which can see the accused make several court appearances before trial.