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Verdict on court backlogs in B.C.: Delays are getting worse

Premier Christy Clark and her party trail badly in the polls and are being particularly damaged by the resurgent B.C. Conservatives. Claims that they are disregarding an over-burdened and underfunded court system leave the Liberals’ right flank even more exposed.

Chad Hipolito for The Globe and Mail/chad hipolito The Globe and Mail

When the B.C. government unveils a new budget later this month, many will be looking to see what it does to address the deepening crisis in the court system. A day doesn't go by now that a judge or veteran lawyer isn't issuing apocalyptic warnings about its imminent collapse as a result of a lack of funding.

Some of it is overstated rhetoric, but much of it is not. The facts on the ground are real.

The number of cases on the edge of being thrown out because of unreasonable delays sits at more than 2,500. These involve defendants charged with everything from attempted murder to drug dealing to drunk driving. In some cases, the accused have committed other crimes while awaiting trial.

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There were 109 youth and criminal cases stayed in 2011, which is almost double the number from the previous year. Despite hiring 14 new judges in the past two years, the province is still 17 judges short of 2005 levels, which is helping create historic backlogs.

These days, only the Vancouver Canucks' win-loss record gets as much air time as those numbers.

Things are so bad that the usually taciturn Robert Bauman, chief justice of the B.C. Supreme Court, has said publicly that the system is "going over a cliff in slow motion" as a result of funding cuts.

And in an apparent attempt to grab the public's attention on the issue, one judge recently raised the spectre of a serial child sex offender going free as a result of systemic court delays. As damaging as those comments were, worse for the government was the story in a Vancouver tabloid about how an over-burdened justice system ignored the case of a little boy whose puppy was shot by a hunter. Readers were incensed.

Those are the kind of tales that make governments tremble.

There isn't anyone connected with the legal system who doesn't think it will only get worse. The B.C. Criminal Justice Branch, in charge of all criminal prosecutions in the province, has been asked to trim $6-million from its budget this year. Meantime, the province's legal-aid budget has been hacked by 35 per cent.

None of this, obviously, is good news for the government of Liberal Premier Christy Clark. It's no secret that the defeat of the harmonized sales tax blew a $1.6-billion hole in the province's finances, and if the government is going to meet its commitment to balance the books by 2013-14, it has to find savings somewhere. Good luck trying to slash health-care spending – which inhales about half of the treasury each year. Ms. Clark has the other 50 per cent of her budget with which to work, which includes the court system.

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Still, it's inconceivable the government won't find some new money to address the ever-alarmist concerns being expressed about the sorry state of the legal system. Remember, Ms. Clark and her party trail badly in the polls and are being particularly damaged by the resurgent B.C. Conservatives. Claims that they are disregarding an over-burdened and underfunded court system leave the Liberals' right flank even more exposed.

If the party doesn't own the law-and-order agenda, the likelihood of recouping the critical support leaking to the Conservatives diminishes greatly.

All that said, it's difficult not to have some sympathy for the government on this matter. Funding is but one part of the problem when it comes to the slow crawl of justice in B.C. The many delays are also the result of the system itself.

It has become a complex, legal morass. Lawyers working every angle help ensure that cases move along haltingly. Many of our laws, especially those concerning evidence and disclosure, only add to a judge's burden.

For evidence look no further than the infamous BC Rail case, which took more than six years. Only a small fraction of that time was spent on the actual trial. Most was gobbled up in pretrial hearings, fighting about issues like disclosure.

Money isn't the cure to all that ails our legal system in Canada. Sure, governments can ding taxpayers so we can hire more judges and more lawyers and give them the raises they are demanding. But that is not dealing with the greater underlying cause of court delays.

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Major reforms of our legal system are needed. Everyone seems to agree on that. Unfortunately, it's not a problem you can fix simply by throwing money at it.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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