Federal Minister of Justice Wilson-Raybould is meeting with her provincial counterparts next week to discuss delay in the criminal courts. I am a fully retired judge of the Ontario Court of Justice, appointed in the wake of a similar Supreme Court induced crisis on the same issue over twenty-five years ago (in the case of R. v. Askov). During my twenty-year career on the bench, I spent most of my volunteer time as a judge on the issue of delay. And still the problem remains. I have three systemic suggestions to throw into the discussion.
1. Download more “hybrid” criminal offences from the Superior Court to the provincial courts. During the 1990s, the federal government amended the Criminal Code to increase the maximum sentence possible for summary conviction on “hybrid” offences. These are offences where the crown has a choice to proceed by the more complex indictable route or by the simpler summary conviction procedure. Before, the highest sentence on summary conviction was six months in custody. When the amendment “supersized” the cap on sentence for these hybrid offences to a potential eighteen months in custody, crown attorneys assessed the facts of particular cases in light of the higher penalty and, if appropriate, often elected to go ahead by a summary trial in the provincial court. That meant that trials were held more quickly, and the accused had no right to a preliminary hearing. The result was that thousands of cases were downloaded from the Superior Court to the provincial courts, even high-profile criminal trials like those of Jian Ghomeshi and Mike Duffy. That downloading was successful. If the maximum sentence for summary conviction “hybrid” offences were raised again so that it could incorporate more aggravating facts, I suspect that many more cases would proceed in the lower courts.
2. Divert simple drinking and driving cases to an administrative enforcement procedure such as British Columbia implemented in 2010, which was upheld, with some changes, by the Supreme Court of Canada in 2015. When I sat in the Ontario Court of Justice in Brampton, post-Askov, drinking and driving offences made up 45% of our caseload. Even today, drinking and driving cases are the most hotly litigated of charges, and take months to process through the criminal courts. In British Columbia, the Automatic Roadside Prohibition (ARP) scheme provides that drivers who register a “fail” on a roadside breath test can have their licenses suspended immediately for up to 90 days, those who register a “warn” can have shorter suspensions of between three and 30 days, their cars can be impounded, a fine and mandatory remedial education imposed. Apparently, deaths caused by drinking and driving in B.C. have decreased since the administrative enforcement scheme was put in place, and criminal prosecutions of simple drinking and driving charges are down by about 85%. Where there are aggravating factors, a high roadside breath test reading, a prior record of administrative suspensions or criminal convictions, driving while disqualified, or any injury to persons or property, the criminal process should be invoked and sanctions increased. Apparently even MADD Canada is in favour of the B.C. model and has been lobbying the Ontario government to implement it. Now that driving while impaired by marijuana is being added to the Code, a rethink on how enforcement is to be made effective without swamping the criminal courts is imperative.
3. Give the Chief Justice of the provincial courts direct access to the Court of Appeal by enacting a power to “state a case.” Prior to the mid-1990s, Ontario judges had statutory authority to put a factual case to the Court of Appeal for an expedited decision on a legal issue. That power was taken away, a change which in my view has proven dysfunctional. New laws come first to lower trial court judges who have a duty to apply them to the fact situations before them. Sometimes those fact situations are clear and uncontested. The only issue is whether the fact situation involves a breach of the Charter, or some narrow legal issue which needs a definitive resolution by the highest court authority, as speedily as possible.
I had such a case in 2000. It was a simple police stop on the street, a conversation between two officers and a young man, a delay while the police did a computer check on his identity, and then an arrest on unrelated charges. When the charges came before me for trial, both counsel agreed on the facts and the only issue was whether or not the stop amounted to “a detention” which had Charter consequences. As a lower court decision, my written judgment, although published in the national criminal reports and argued repeatedly, had no value as a precedent within the hierarchical structure of our court system. But my case crystallized the issue as a systemic matter. With no power to state a case for an expedited definitive decision from the Ontario Court of Appeal, the issue of what constitutes a detention on the street churned around the lower courts until finally, nine years later, the Supreme Court of Canada decided the issue. Nine years is a long time. Too long.
That case had to do with detention on the streets. There were other issues: whether a new drinking and driving law had retrospective application to cases currently before the courts? whether the crown had a Charter duty to disclose repair records of Intoxilyzer machines? Both technical legal issues which, in my view, caused what I can only consider constipation in the lower courts. The enema of an expedited Court of Appeal decision was needed.
The existing criminal appellate process in Canada proceeds in a non-systemic, random manner, totally dependent on whether the crown or a defendant has any interest in an appeal. For many pragmatic reasons, neither may want to appeal a particular case, and the issue churns on, wasting endless hours of redundant argument in the lower trial courts. This ad hoc, leisurely and languid appeal process contributes considerably to delay in the courts. If speedy justice is in the public interest, then the Chief Justice of the provincial court has a systemic interest in cutting through the verbiage and getting some authoritative direction on these types of issues on an expedited basis. For this reason, the Chief Justice should be able to “state a case” for a definitive decision from the Court of Appeal. The faster the provincial Courts of Appeal deal with the issues, the faster they will reach the Supreme Court of Canada if necessary, and the faster the lower courts will know how to deal with the trials before them. What’s the downside?
It was gratifying to read Sean Fine’s overview of how Canada’s criminal “Courts [are] shaken by search for solutions to delays” in Saturday’s Globe and Mail. In an intelligent and engaging analysis, he set out the essential message of last July’s Supreme Court of Canada 5:4 decision in R. v. Jordan: that criminal charges are to be tried within 18 months in provincial courts, and within 30 months in Superior Courts, and delays beyond those time periods shall be presumed to be unreasonable. He described the differences of opinion between the different Supreme Court justices, the reaction of the criminal justice system across the country to the new timelines, and the context of this particular decision over time. I commend his report to you.
This is not the first such crisis in the criminal courts. In R. v. Askov (1990), when the Supreme Court also defined what constituted “a reasonable time to trial,” the Ontario crown withdrew thousands of charges because of obvious delay, and thousands more came before the courts when accused persons made their own applications for a stay because of delay. In Ontario, I was one of 36 new judges, and at least two dozen new crown attorneys, appointed by the provincial government to help deal with the existing backlog in the criminal courts, and avoid the situation from recurring. Over 25 years later, Jordan is another SCC decision on the same subject, and another “kick in the pants” from the Supreme Court to all the courts across the country bound to apply their ruling. Equally if not more important, the Supreme Court decision is a clarion call to the federal government responsible for defining the criminal law and to the provincial governments charged with the administration of criminal justice. The Supremes are saying that delay in criminal courts must become a priority.
Sean Fine points out that the Supreme Court agreed on the facts of the particular case before them (that 49.5 months to trial on a charge of possession for the purpose of trafficking is unreasonable), but disagreed on almost everything else. In the fall-out from Jordan, all sorts of questions are being discussed. Some say there is a need to change “a culture of complacency” which exists in the court system; others deny that any complacency exists. Do away with preliminary hearings, implement a triage system, divert less important cases out of the system, require crown attorneys to lay charges and not the police, inject more resources into the system, speed up appointing judges; all are bandied about as obvious “solutions” to the problem.
Finding enduring solutions, however, requires appropriate empirical data about the different ways the system is actually working across each province and across the country. As Professor of Criminology Tony Doob noted in a recent Globe and Mail article with respect to preliminary hearings, such data is non-existent.
Throughout my 20 years on the Ontario Court of Justice, the 1990 Askov “kick in the pants” was a continuing incentive to reform within the Ontario criminal court system. The provincial government appointed more judges and crowns; the provincial bench became more diversified. In 1991, the Supremes mandated full disclosure of the crown’s case to the defence. For a variety of systemic reasons, making that aspiration real took more time and effort than would ever have been anticipated, and still sometimes falls short in particular cases. Thousands of charges were downloaded from the Superior Courts to the provincial courts, eliminating the possibility of a preliminary hearing and inherently ensuring a more speedy trial. This was done by the simple statutory expedient of “supersizing” the possible penalties available for “hybrid” charges (such as assault and sexual assault) where the crown can elect to proceed by summary conviction.
Numerous practices were attempted to reduce delay. We tried two tiers of courts: one in the morning and another in the afternoon; that didn’t work. Special plea courts with judges known to be lenient on sentencing were set up; that helped. Plea courts for early resolution of cases are now the norm. We implemented an intake cycle system where a single judge and crown took ownership of blocks of cases coming into the system with the expectation that they would be resolved or adjudicated within four months. That system was abandoned after several years without any formal outside evaluation. The administration monitored “time to trial” statistics and, routinely, assigned temporary judges to run “blitz courts” to clear local backlogs of cases in overworked or understaffed courts. “Shadow courts” were established with “shadow” dockets of cases which were fed into the trial courts offering help after their regularly assigned cases were completed. Experienced crowns were placed into intake courts to “take ownership” of cases, encourage early resolutions and ensure that multiple adjournments did not bog down the set date process.
Numerous task forces and commissions (both local and province-wide) were set up and recommendations made for changes in practices: early vetting of cases by experienced crowns, early resolution discussions, diversion of simple cases out of the system and to special programs, mandatory judicial pretrials to narrow the issues and encourage resolutions, rules requiring notice about witnesses and issues to be addressed on prelims, prelims moved out of courtrooms and witnesses examined on the record without a judge being present, special training and procedures for complex cases and for dealing with unrepresented accused, the use of trial coordinators to set dates outside of court, specialized crowns handling specialized courts with specialized procedures (e.g.: domestic courts, courts for children, drug courts, mental health courts, courts for Indigenous people), dealing with impaired driving administratively rather than through the courts.
There has been no shortage of problems identified nor recommendations made about how the system could be improved. The problem has been making reforms happen, and the systemic failure to evaluate the effects.
The criminal justice system, like the health care system, is a very complex institution with multiple ever-changing stakeholders, little routine outside evaluation, and, in my time, a woeful lack of institutional memory. The federal government defines the criminal law but it is not responsible for the administration of justice. Our constitution makes provinces responsible for the operation of the courts. The actions of one affect the other, and vice-versa. One obvious example: When the federal government cut its financial contribution to the Ontario Legal Aid Plan, the number of defendants able to obtain counsel through Legal Aid went down, and the number of accused persons representing themselves went up. Without counsel, there were fewer pre-trial resolutions and the time taken for trial, even for simple matters, increased. What else would one expect? Defence counsel are essential players in the system. Apart from the detriment to individual rights, cutting them back removed the grease that makes the legal system work.
Don’t get me started…. It’s a big issue. How the time limitations imposed by the Supreme Court of Canada will withstand the reality of fact situations coming before Canadian courts in the immediate future, only time will tell. Maybe, as in 1991, the jurisprudence will become nuanced. In my view, it is a very good thing that the Supreme Court has put on the pressure to make “speedy justice” a priority. We’re finally talking about delay, the real issue which has faced our courts for decades. Maybe this time, there will be a major rethink.
This post was also re-published on my other blog, Re-view From the Bench, on 14 March 2017.