So many cases, so little court time
Nova Scotia has the highest proportion of inmates who are in jails on remand waiting for a judge, a jury or an open courtroom
Let’s talk about a rock and a hard place. Or, more to the point, how an overstretched judiciary in the Atlantic region is going to deal with new guidelines from the Supreme Court of Canada about the right to have a swift trial.
I’ve written before about the risks for cases already in the court system – how, across the Atlantic region, cases where there is good, strong, compelling evidence of the guilt of people charged with offences are going to be stayed, permanently halted, because it’s taken too long to get them into the courts.
The stays – issued as a result of time limits outlined in a Supreme Court of Canada decision known as R vs. Jordan – are certainly going to bring a group of cases to an abrupt end. But the impact doesn’t end there; it may well be that provincial governments across the country are going to have to spend more – and considerably enlarge – their court infrastructure to meet those time deadlines.
A case in Nova Scotia’s Supreme Court illustrates, in two different ways, why that problem is far from a one-time event.
The case is Robert Blois Colpitts vs. Her Majesty the Queen (you can read about it here: http://bit.ly/2k2nLKJ ). Justice Kevin Coady is right now in the middle of hearing the case, which involves charges that Colpitts was involved in manipulating the public share price for a company called Knowledge House, a Nova Scotian e-learning business that collapsed in 2001. Charges weren’t laid until 2011 – investors lost $31 million.
But while Knowledge House is a story in itself, it’s one of the latest decisions in the case that points out the woes in our justice system.
In a written decision filed Jan. 24, Justice Coady pointed out a recent study showing the growth in the number of prisoners sitting in jail waiting for a court date: “Nova Scotia has the highest proportion of inmates (68 per cent) who are in jails on remand waiting for a judge, a jury or an open courtroom.” That was a 192 per cent increase in the number of prisoners waiting for trial.
Justice Coady also pointed out the tremendous institutional delay involved in getting into court: “The wait time for trials in this court is lengthy. The earliest date for a three-day trial is Dec. 27, 2017. The earliest date for a two-week trial is Feb. 16, 2018. The recent Supreme Court of Canada decision in R. vs. Jordan … has placed tremendous pressure on this court to complete criminal trials within 30 months from charge”
Think about that: that means a year lost, 12 months out of 30, without even taking into account the other delays in lawyer availability, time taken for full disclosure, and everything else that has to be handled before a trial.
Then, there’s the other side of the coin: the amount of time some trials take.
“If this were a relatively short trial this problem would be less alarming,” Coady wrote. “However, we are 115 days into this trial with no indication of when the evidence will be completed. This state of affairs cannot go on forever. The time has come for me to control this process which is presently chewing up massive judicial resources and blocking others from accessing the justice system.”
So, no court time, and lengthy trials.
On top of that, there is the system itself. There is a tremendous amount of lost time in the court system now, and judges regularly express frustration about it. When trials don’t go ahead, judges sit on their hands with no ability to reschedule cases. And when lawyers don’t accurately estimate how long trials will run, there are more logjams.
More courts, or more prosecutorial resources (i.e. more money) may end up being the only solution.
Russell Wangersky is TC Media’s Atlantic regional columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @ Wangersky.