By Tom Fletcher
A day after appointing nine new provincial court judges, the B.C. government has launched its latest review of the court system, trying to identify why the courts are slowing down despite falling crime and case rates over the past 20 years.
Premier Christy Clark and Attorney General Shirley Bond announced the review Wednesday in Vancouver. They released an audit and discussion paper that show B.C.’s crime rate has declined faster than any Canadian province, to the point where 13,000 fewer new provincial criminal cases were heard in the past year, compared to 10 years ago.
Despite that, the B.C. court system has an estimated 2,000 cases that are in danger of being dismissed based on excessive delays, and there are regular reports of criminal charges being stayed due to delays.
The government has appointed 23 judges in the last two years, and ramped up training for sheriffs and other court staff to partially restore budget cuts to the system in previous years.
“If it was just about money, that would be a pretty simple answer,” Clark said. She added that one problem is that suspects now appear in court an average of six times before their trials begin.
Bond appointed lawyer Geoffrey Cowper, a former chair of the Legal Services Society, to make recommendations on changes by July. One issue to be studied is B.C.’s practice of having Crown prosecutors approve all charges, instead of giving police that authority as is done in other provinces.
NDP leader Adrian Dix and justice critic Leonard Krog blasted the announcement as the latest in a long series of reviews, this one designed to push the “crisis” in the courts beyond the 2013 provincial election.
Dix warned that the province has not yet taken into account the impact of a federal crime crackdown, with mandatory minimum jail terms for offences such as growing a half a dozen marijuana plants. Those sentences will not only increase jail population in B.C., they will also prompt more accused people to fight charges in court rather than plead guilty, he said.
The announcement included a shuffle of responsibilities that entrenches the merger of Bond’s attorney general and public safety ministries to a single Justice and Attorney General ministry.
Responsibility for the Public Sector Employers Council and ICBC goes from public safety to finance, and responsibility for liquor and gambling policy is transferred to Energy and Mines Minister Rich Coleman.