Cranbrook courts in critical condition

With new sweeping changes to the B.C. Justice System, the president of the Crown Counsel Association predicts little impact on Cranbrook

Samiran Lakshman

The B.C. government has announced sweeping changes to the province’s justice system this week, but Cranbrook’s law courts are unlikely to see delays lessen anytime soon.

Samiran Lakshman, president of the B.C. Crown Counsel Association that represents the province’s prosecutors, said Cranbrook is in a unique situation compared to courts elsewhere. There are only two provincial court judges in Cranbrook – Judge Ron Webb and Judge Grant Sheard – and a limited number of Crown counsel, and both are responsible for traveling around the region to satellite courts.

“The Crown in Cranbrook work extremely hard to meet those requirements,” Lakshman said.

Cuts to Legal Aid in B.C. have further complicated the issue in Cranbrook, where less funding is available and more resources are needed. Lakshman said funding has been slashed by a third in the last few years.

“It’s that doubling up of resources that really exacerbates the cuts to Legal Aid,” Lakshman said.

All of these factors create more delay. In Cranbrook 26 per cent of cases are a year old or older, which is 10 per cent above the provincial average.

“That situation of delay is something that’s getting worse and worse,” Lakshman said. “There’s an inherent, systemic delay.”

In 2010/11 the Cranbrook Law Courts saw 1,193 cases concluded. The average length of a criminal case in Cranbrook is one to 60 days, representing 45 per cent of all cases. In those years there were 6,560 appearances in court before the two judges. The Provincial Court had 1,559 new cases, and Supreme Court had 576.

Lakshman points to a recent sitting in Golden B.C., when the Crown and judge traveled all the way there, only to cancel all criminal court matters in order to hear family court. The challenge is that in family matters one member is often unrepresented, which can lead to further delays.

“It’s so extremely difficult for that to happen in an efficient – let alone just – manner when that person doesn’t have a lawyer,” Lakshman said.

That means other matters are put off and the judges are forced to pick and choose what gets heard and what is delayed.

“Judges have that difficult balancing act. Something inevitably gets adjourned,” Lakshman said.

Attorney General and Minister of Justice Shirley Bond announced the overhaul of the legal system on Monday following a report by lawyer Geoffrey Cowper. He concluded the problem is partly because there is an incentive, particularly for defence lawyers, to delay cases, and no system for enforcing timely hearings of evidence.

The announcement launches a new court scheduling system, but Lakshman said missing from the plan is any funding for more judges. He said the province remains 16 judges short to be fully effective.

“You can’t open a court room without a new judge,” he said.

Lakshman said in some areas of the province like Cranbrook, court time is booked as much as five times more than time actually allows. That scheduling means that when a matter is delayed on the trial day, another case is put forward to take its place.

“They’re stacking the trial list and stacking the matters. It’s not unusual to see matters adjourned due to no court time,” he said. “When everyone is ready to go because everyone’s done their job, and everyone’s working efficiently – that’s when court gets adjourned.”

Resources at the Cranbrook office are scarce, and Lakshman said it isn’t just hitting the judges and Crown Council. Hiring freezes also effect the B.C. Sheriffs Service and court clerks. When a new employee is needed, hiring must go through the deputy minister and then the deputy premier’s office, meaning the position takes longer to fill.

“The Cranbrook office operates on a very tight ship,” he said. “They are unable to access additional resources if needed.”

That means that when auxiliary judges or Crown counsel are needed, they are not available, which adds to the delays.

Lakshman criticized the new court scheduling system, which sets no specific court room until the day of. He wonders how in a small office like Cranbrook, Crown counsel are expected to split their time between two court rooms if their matters are set at the same time.

“This trial scheduling idea is not a bad one, but it’s not really going to make a difference without staff,.”

With so many delays in the court system, Lakshman said it is not only concerning for taxpayers but for the RCMP officers who forward their cases on to the Crown who then recommend charges.

“We expect that there will be a police officer attend when we call 911,” Lakshman said. Every case that is forwarded for charges has gone through a rigorous investigation by Crown counsel before it becomes a matter for the courts.

“We have a very high standard before we even allow cases to start,” Lakshman said. “It’s only at the eleventh hour that we’re saying, ‘Oh, we don’t have time for that.’ Why are we bothering capturing the criminals? What’s the point of the police doing their job in the first place?”

When a case takes months, even years to see the light of day in a court room, Lakshman said it’s obvious that witness testimony will not be as solid.

“It doesn’t take an expert to know that the longer the gap between the event, the harder it is to testify about it.”

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