To critics, the BC Liberals’ decade-plus in power has left a legacy of cuts to the court system and citizens waiting longer for justice, if they get it at all.
Two dozen smaller courthouses were closed down in 2002.
And by 2010, persistent budget restraint was causing long delays in getting cases to trial, prompting the B.C. Provincial Court to issue a “Justice Delayed” report that warned more than 2,000 criminal cases were at risk of being tossed out.
Despite some more judges being appointed, provincial courts run with 12 fewer judges today than in 2005.
Each year, dozens of accused criminals walk free because they can’t be tried fast enough.
“The problem hasn’t gone away,” said Samiran Lakshman, president of the B.C. Crown Counsel Association. “The serious lack of investment is still wreaking havoc in our justice system.”
A key source of inefficiency is too many people try to represent themselves in court – often in family law hearings – forcing provincial court judges to spend extra time on those mattters, and often less on criminal ones.
That should be no surprise, says NDP justice critic Leonard Krog, after the province chopped legal aid funding by 40 per cent.
“What that did is cripple access to justice for the poor and vulnerable,” Krog said, adding it worsened delays because more people were left without legal advice to “stumble around in an arena where they’re simply not trained or able to fight.”
An public inquiry two years ago recommended more legal aid funding, and found it should be considered an essential service.
The NDP would modestly boost legal aid funding – from $70 million now to $80 million within three years.
Krog said more than that is needed but can’t yet be promised, given budget constraints.
Justice Minister Shirley Bond said the justice budget did rise slightly this year to $1.14 billion, including a small increase in legal aid funding.
“To suggest that by simply adding a judge or a few dollars here or there we’re going to solve the foundational problems I think is short-sighted,” Bond said in an interview.
Bond contends progress has been made in reducing congestion and the worst delays in the system have eased.
There were more than 100 criminal cases stayed by judges in 2011 due to excessive delay, she noted, but that number dropped to 66 last year.
Nine new judges have been appointed recently and part of their time is dedicated to reducing the backlog.
The province has been on a search for deep reforms since an independent review concluded a “culture of delay” is entrenched in the system.
The Liberals would look for ways to increase court resources when possible and if necessary, she said, but the emphasis will be on spending smarter, not spending more.
“We have fewer cases going to court rooms today yet they’re taking longer,” Bond said, adding the crime rate is at the lowest level in nearly four decades.
Bond has unveiled a plan for a Justice and Public Safety Council to better oversee the courts and recommend ways to improve performance, with help from specialty advisory boards.
But B.C.’s main success so far in relieving pressure has been the move to roadside impaired driving penalties, which result in instant police-administered penalties and far fewer drunk driving cases going to court.
The Liberals propose to also move traffic ticket disputes out of courtrooms to administrative tribunals.
Crown prosecutors say that while the number of impaired charges has gone down, police are using the time they save on those complex investigations to crack other crimes, bringing more cases of other types before the courts.
Lakshman said pervasive delays continue, especially in the worst courthouses, such as Surrey.
He said delays resulted in charges recently being stayed against two police officers in Surrey accused of assaulting a senior.
“These are the types of cases the community demands be tried on their merits – not be defeated by a system that simply doesn’t have the resources or the time to have a trial within a reasonable time period.”
Defence lawyers know the odds and still tell their clients that rather than plead guilty they could take the “lottery ticket” of running the case to trial and seeing if it gets tossed.
“That only adds to the delay problem,” Lakshman said.
The BC Conservatives say the courts and law enforcement have received a declining share of the B.C. budget and the party would dedicate the “requisite resources” to protect people and property.
Don’t count on regional police from next government
There have been repeated demands over the years for a regional police force to unify the patchwork of municipal and RCMP forces in the Lower Mainland.
The latest has come from Missing Women Commissioner Wally Oppal, who concluded last year serial killer Robert Pickton might have been caught sooner had a regional force been in place to better coordinate the disjointed response to vanishing sex trade workers.
But there’s lilttle sign B.C.’s next provincial government will act decisively.
The NDP platform is entirely silent on the topic and justice critic Leonard Krog has said he would likely not pursue regional policing without broad support from local cities, most of which are opposed.
The BC Liberals’ platform pledges to work with police departments and communities in Metro Vancouver and the Capital Regional District to see if a regional policing system can better meet local needs while being affordable to taxpayers.
But Justice Minister Shirley Bond is also cautious on the concept, promising only a formal discussion of it.
“There are mixed views on whether a regionalized police force actually solves the problem,” she said, noting B.C.’s integrated poliing teams already provide highly regionalized service where justified but more may be possible.
The B.C. Green party promises to establish a “provincial police service” but its platform provides no details.
Several Metro Vancouver cities, some dissatisfied with the outcome of last year’s RCMP contract signing, are investigating their own options to merge police forces on a more limited basis.