Reporters, lawyers, and no doubt court staff were on the edge of their seats earlier this week in Vernon awaiting not a landmark ruling from the judge, but a verdict on whether there was even enough time to hold the sentence hearing at all.
It was already the third time the case was up for sentencing due to scheduling issues and court delays, and everyone, including the accused and his family, clearly wanted to get the matter over with.
It was nearly the end of the day, after numerous glances at the clock and anxious courtroom whisperings, that the hearing finally started. Pushed down the list by a backlog of other cases that morning, we’d been told to come back twice already and everyone was antsy to get going.
The Crown lawyer had time to quickly run through her final words on the case before time was up and the judge called it a day. The hearing would have to pick back up later on in the week to hear from the defence.
The judge acknowledged the delay, but explained he didn’t want to ‘rush’ the hearing or ‘squeeze it in’. He made a point of saying the charges were serious, and the court must denounce the behaviour in a way that is respectful of the accused’s interests, the interests of society, and the protection of the public.
“It’s entitled to thoughtful consideration,” the judge said.
And of course, he’s right. But cases like this are not uncommon in the Vernon courthouse, and people are often left waiting around all day only to be asked to come back another time. Aside from being what must surely be a scheduling nightmare for court clerks, lawyers and judges, the delays aren’t easy on victims, accused, or families on both sides of the equation who are going through some of the most difficult experiences of their lives.
The accused in this case first appeared in court in May 2014. That means it took 19 months to get where we are today, which is still unfinished. According to Stats Canada, it took more court appearances to complete criminal cases in British Columbia in 2013/2014 (the most recent years for which there was data) than in most of Canada.
A 2010 report stated the Provincial Court of B.C. had lost 17 judges since 2005, resulting in an eye opening loss of over 900 trial days in 2010 and over 1600 in 2011 unless new appointments were made. The report found the system was unable to keep pace with the caseload and was increasingly failing to meet its legal obligation to provide timely access to justice.
The Province has been appointing new judges (two Okanagan lawyers were appointed in 2013) to help alleviate caseload pressures, and it is they who are tasked with the responsibility of balancing timeliness with thoughtfulness.
Nobody likes to get stuck waiting around for hours, days, or months, but delays at court have more serious ramifications than mere inconvenience. The longer a case moves through the courts, particularly awaiting trial, the higher the risk of it getting tossed out (the threshold is around 18 months after charges were laid.) Accused people bound by bail conditions may find their rights restricted for longer than is justified. The public also has an interest in the timely administration of justice. Ultimately, the clock is ticking and the longer it takes to appoint new judges and get back on track, the bigger the backlog will become.
To contact a reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 250-309-5230. To contact the editor, email email@example.com or call 250-718-2724.