A starved court system

  • March 07, 2017

By Dustin Godfrey for Castanet

A Penticton lawyer is advocating for more funding for the justice system in British Columbia to help cases flow through the courts more quickly.

Michael Welsh, who is the president of the Canadian Bar Association's B.C. chapter, says the CBA has prepared an agenda for the Province with 22 points on how to curtail stalling in the system.

"We feel the justice system can be improved by government," Welsh said. "One of the points that's key is there needs to be adequate staffing in the courts – both court clerks and sheriffs – to ensure that court rooms are running, so that we can have trials dealt with in a timely way."

Welsh says a lack of staffing in courts has had consequences in some jurisdictions, pointing particularly to Victoria, where a lack of sheriffs recently led to a drop on drug trafficking charges in two cases.

"The problem has been it just hasn't been a high enough priority on the part of government. The government has, with the last budget, moved about $2.6 million from other areas in the justice budget towards more training of sheriffs, but that's just robbing Peter to pay Paul," Welsh said.

"What we need to see is an investment of new money in the justice system, both to train enough sheriffs – we're down from about 500 (sheriffs) to 400 over the last several years, so we've had a substantial loss – and also to ensure that the salaries paid to them are comparable to other law enforcement."

Welsh says there's a lot of turnover for sheriffs, who often leave to train for police work because the pay is often higher.

report from the Chief Justice last year on court delays outlines the top 10 provincial court registries for delays in cases going to trial, separated into one-day trials, two- to four-day trials and trials that last five days and over. In all three categories, Penticton ranks in the top 10.

For one-day trials, Penticton is tied for the third spot with Port Alberni, Dawson Creek and Williams Lake, at an average delay of nine months before trial, while the provincial standard is just 6.4 months.

For two- to four-day trials, Penticton is tied for sixth with five other court registries, at nine months, compared to an 8.1-month standard. For five-plus-day trials, with a standard of 8.6 months, Penticton is tied for seventh with, again, a nine-month wait.

Welsh says he's not sure why there's such a delay in Penticton, adding that he's never seen a shortage of clerks or sheriffs in Penticton's courthouse. 

The move by the CBA B.C. chapter comes as a 2016 Supreme Court of Canada ruling has made national headlines regarding limits on delays before a trial. For provincial courts, the presumptive ceiling is 18 months for a case to go to trial before it's tossed out, while Supreme Courts have 30 months.

The ruling, referred to as R. v Jordan, has had lawyers scrambling to bring cases to trial, including in Penticton's Supreme Court.