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Speed up B.C. court process, 270-page report urges

Geoffrey Cowper, pictured during a press conference in Vancouver June 22, 2011.

JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia's justice system must transform itself from a "culture of delay" to a "culture of timeliness," the head of a government-ordered review says.

Geoffrey Cowper, a lawyer with Fasken Martineau, made dozens of recommendations in a report of 270-plus pages issued on Thursday. Premier Christy Clark appointed Mr. Cowper in February to lead the legal-sector review of the justice system after excessive delays caused more than 100 cases to be stayed last year and endangered thousands more.

However, the government did not commit immediately to act on his recommendations.

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Mr. Cowper proposes a province-wide plan to reduce crime, and measures that would revise how prosecutors handle cases and resolve them sooner. His primary aim, he said, is reducing delays and backlogs, and he suggests a system to track cases to prevent them from being stalled.

"In my consultations, there's really one topic on which there appears to be universal agreement: the system works too slowly," Mr. Cowper told reporters in a news conference at a downtown Vancouver hotel. "People also agree that delay undermines all of the goals of the justice system."

Mr. Cowper said there's currently no comprehensive strategy to resolve cases in a timely manner. A tracking system, he said, would make the sector more accountable to the public.

He said different measures would have to be applied for different cases, and some files will always be exceptional. He added, however, that the justice system must find ways to deal with cases "in respect of days and weeks of time, not months and years of time."

"To get this done, all of the justice participants are going to have to change the way that they work, both within their roles and with one another," he said. "Change is never easy, and in the justice system, we have a great adherence to tradition and that makes change even more difficult. ... I believe the time is right. I believe that people recognize that the public has demands for performance from the system as a whole, and I believe the leaders within the system are committed to meeting those needs."

The top judges at the B.C. Court of Appeal, B.C. Supreme Court, and Provincial Court issued a joint statement on Thursday confirming they had received Mr. Cowper's report and would "consider further comment."

Judges blasted the review in March, saying the judicial branch must maintain administrative independence.

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The Trial Lawyers Association of B.C. also said it is studying the report. The Crown did not return a call seeking comment.

When Ms. Clark announced the review, she said her government would not just pump more money into the $1-billion justice system; efficiencies would have to be found. Mr. Cowper said many of his recommendations would not cost extra.

He noted that legal aid has been under constraint since the mid-1990s. An increase, he said, would be money well spent.

Mr. Cowper recommended appointing five more Provincial Court judges to reduce the backlog of cases.

The recommendations are not binding on the government, and Attorney-General Shirley Bond would promise only to give them "the thought and consideration they deserve." She said her government will issue a report in October that addresses Mr. Cowper's review.

Ms. Bond, whose B.C. Liberal Party is well behind in the polls and facing an election next May, said she's hoping systemic changes will free up resources.

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Enhancing the justice system, she said, remains her government's vision.

"We didn't ask the question about reform so we could see the report gather dust," she said.

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