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The Globe and Mail

Ottawa schedules emergency meeting as court delays intensify

Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée is pictured during question period on Wednesday, October 28, 2015. Ms. Vallée said that, in Montreal, “the delays to set a trial in Superior Court are way over what is being defined as a reasonable delay by the Supreme Court in Jordan.”

Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press

The federal government is convening an emergency meeting with provincial justice ministers later this month to deal with backlogged courts as pressure mounts on Ottawa to address the fallout from the Supreme Court ruling last July known as R v Jordan.

Quebec is the latest to call for federal action, after a judge in Montreal, citing delay, dismissed a charge of second-degree murder against a man in the killing of his wife.

Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould said in the House on Monday that the province has six vacancies on its superior court, representing only 3.5 per cent of the total of 143 full-time positions. But Quebec Justice Minister Stéphanie Vallée said later that the province has asked Ottawa to fill eight new judging jobs in addition to the six, and she accused her federal counterpart of shirking her duty to respond to the Supreme Court ruling.

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Read more: Courts shaken by search for solutions to delays

"What she's saying basically is that the needs identified by Quebec, by the Chief Justice of the Superior Court, are not real needs," she told The Globe and Mail.

"That's what I understand from her response. And I can't agree with this. These needs have been identified through a thorough evaluation of all the files that are pending. We did it in a very conscious way. This is not something we're asking just to ask. This is a need that was established with objective figures."

Ms. Vallée said Ottawa has now decided to meet with the provinces in Gatineau, Que., on April 28 to discuss solutions.

A spokesman for the federal government said the location has not been confirmed yet.

"I hope my colleagues share the sense of urgency to act and put forward different measures to unclog the system," Ms. Vallée said. "We all have our different part to play."

Ontario Attorney-General Yasir Naqvi said in an e-mail that he had called for a federal-provincial meeting of justice ministers months ago to discuss delay. "A national meeting will send a clear message to victims, their families and Canadians that we are taking action," he said. "I hope that this meeting is the first step in building consensus solutions to speed up the criminal justice system in Ontario and across the country."

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Ms. Vallée said that, in Montreal, "the delays to set a trial in Superior Court are way over what is being defined as a reasonable delay by the Supreme Court in Jordan."

The court set a limit of 30 months from the time a charge is laid until the trial is completed in superior court so that the justice system can comply with the constitutional right of an accused person to a timely trial.

Sivaloganathan Thanabalasingham was charged with second-degree-murder in August, 2012, with killing his wife, Anuja Baskaran. The trial was set to start 57 months after the charge was laid. Last Thursday, a court dismissed the charge, and Ms. Vallée said the prosecution service is considering whether to appeal. Judges in Alberta and Ontario have stayed charges of first-degree murder, and those cases are under appeal.

Quebec is not the only province urging Ottawa to do more in response to the Jordan ruling. Ontario wants to get rid of most preliminary inquiries, the pretrial hearing that screens cases to ensure there is sufficient evidence to go to trial. Manitoba is asking to eliminate the hearings in a four-year experiment.

Alberta's prosecution service dropped charges in 200 cases, some involving violence and others drunk-driving, saying it needed its limited resources for the most serious crimes. After public pressure, the province announced a large increase in the number of prosecutors despite its financial straits. Ontario will also add prosecutors. But Quebec, with a boost to its justice budget of $175-million over the next four years, and the addition of 16 provincial-court judges, 52 prosecutors and hundreds of court workers, has spent the most new money of any province.

As the Jordan ruling plays out in the courts, the government's revamped judicial appointment process has yet to bear much fruit, six months after it was announced. Ottawa has appointed eight judges since then – just one in Quebec. And 10 of the 17 committees that screen candidates for federally appointed courts (such as the superior courts of provinces) still have no members. That includes one of Quebec's two screening committees. At the same time, there is a near-record 59 judicial vacancies.

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"When you read Jordan, the responsibility is ours collectively. And it does involve Ottawa," Ms. Vallée said, adding that Quebec has done its part, and has also convened regular roundtables of all participants in the system to discuss how to make legal proceedings move faster. "The millions of dollars invested by Quebec are to be able to treat 10,000 additional files per year out of the 100,000 files treated yearly. So we're really making an effort."

Quebec has the most applications from lawyers for stays of any province – 800 since July – and of those, courts have rendered about 100 decisions, staying slightly less than half. But the stays did not involve violent crimes, she said.

Ottawa created 28 new judging positions in the recent federal budget. Twelve are for Alberta and one is for Yukon. The remaining 15 will be put into a national pool and allocated on the basis of need, a spokesman for the federal justice ministry said.

Ms. Vallée said the province would not invoke the notwithstanding clause and restore charges, as urged by the opposition Parti Québécois.

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