British Columbians facing criminal charges got few breaks because of COVID-19, data shows | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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British Columbians facing criminal charges got few breaks because of COVID-19, data shows

Based on statistics from the B.C. Prosecution Office, it appears few people awaiting trial had their charges 'dropped' during the pandemic.
July 24, 2020 - 8:00 AM

B.C.’s justice system has taken plenty of protective measures during the COVID-19 shutdown, but dropping cases for people facing criminal charges were not among them, data released to shows.

Courtrooms were closed for months, COVID-19 became a factor when deciding on bail and some prisoners were released early from the province’s correctional department, but the number of charges stayed by Crown prosecutors is actually lower during the pandemic than the same period last year.

Between April 1 and July 1 this year, prosecutors cleared cases by a stay of proceedings 588 times, compared to 864 for the same period last year. For the province as a whole, 4,197 charges were stayed this year compared to 4,959 in 2019.

The pandemic put police and prosecutors on tight deadline pressure because it’s been established in Canadian law that fair trial rights are denied by delays and the typical course is to drop those charges. In 2017, the Supreme Court of Canada finally specified unreasonable delay when considered a case known as ‘Jordan’ (B.C.’s Barrett Jordan had to wait four years for his trial). Cases in provincial court should be heard within 18 months while more serious cases in B.C. Supreme Court must get to trial within 30 months.

Would the difficulties caused by a global pandemic have moved those goalposts? The Supreme Court of Canada decision anticipates ‘special circumstances’ that might make for reasonable delay but that hasn’t been raised in any tested cases. B.C. Prosecution Service communications counsel Dan McLaughlin says it wouldn’t be appropriate to speculate about how the courts might make that assessment.

While it appears prosecutors didn’t ‘drop’ many cases, it’s likely many of those charges were dealt with by plea agreements with defence lawyers. McLaughlin says prosecutors typically consult with defence counsel to resolve matters without a trial and discuss how to ensure criminal charges are brought before the court efficiently.

During the fiscal year of 2018-2019, roughly 60 per cent of the roughly 60,000 criminal cases across the province resulted in a guilty finding, one per cent not guilty, four per cent entered into a recognizance to keep the peace, and 34 per cent had charges stayed. One per cent were concluded in some other fashion, such as being found unfit to stand trial or not criminally responsible due to mental disorder.

Of the charges stayed by Crown, McLaughlin says around half received some other consequences, such as a referral to alternative measures, or a guilty plea on another file or charge.

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