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Editorial: Make courts more efficient

The budget crunch facing the Justice Ministry is evidence of the need to get on with overhauling B.C.’s justice system.

The budget crunch facing the Justice Ministry is evidence of the need to get on with overhauling B.C.’s justice system. A system that handles cases reasonably quickly and efficiently will not only be more fair and effective, but will also be less costly.

And the Herculean task of cutting expenses would be significantly easier if the federal government had not imposed mandatory minimum sentences.

Faced with the prospect of going over budget, Justice Ministry officials are looking for ways to reduce spending.

“We recognize how challenging it is to find cost savings, while continuing to maintain critically important services, but we must continue to find ways to eliminate unnecessary expenditures,” said an email sent last week to staff by deputy ministers Richard Fyfe and Lori Wanamaker.

Meanwhile, legal-aid lawyers are threatening to adjourn hundreds of criminal trials if the Legal Services Society and the attorney general can’t reach a funding agreement.

Long plagued by backlogs and delays in criminal cases, B.C.’s justice system has been the focus of a green paper, white papers and a review by lawyer Geoffrey Cowper, who concluded that the system needs a major overhaul.

While B.C.’s overall crime rate is declining, resolution of criminal cases is taking longer and costs are rising.

Cowper points, among other things, to entrenched attitudes, inefficient scheduling processes and lack of a clear vision as barriers to a more efficient system.

Of fundamental importance, he says, is timeliness.

“Timeliness is fundamental to all aspects of a fair and effective criminal justice process which enjoys the confidence of the public and respects the rights and interests of all those affected by crime,” he writes in his report to the provincial government. The province has begun to implement his recommendations, but it will be a long process.

While Cowper’s focus is on the efficient administration of justice, not on costs, time is indeed money for the justice system. The main cost of administering justice is staffing — delays require more people to spend more time and costs mount accordingly.

The Surrey Six murder trial began in B.C. Supreme Court this week, nearly six years after the killings, and is expected to last a year.

That a case should take so long to come to trial and that the trial should last so long does not speak well of the efficiency of the justice system. And it will be costly — among the many public servants involved with the trial are nine Crown prosecutors.

The Supreme Court handles only the most serious criminal offences. More than 98 per cent of criminal cases are handled by provincial courts. Almost all are resolved without trial — less than two per cent come to full trial.

And that’s where the federal government comes in. Because the Harper government has mandated minimum sentences for more than 90 offences, the number of trials will rise, and more costs will be incurred by the province.

Many cases could be resolved quickly by negotiating pleas and sentences, but mandatory jail sentences make that less likely. Facing certain jail time if convicted, a suspect is more likely to choose to go to trial.

That, says Victoria lawyer Michael Mulligan, is a huge factor in clogging the courts and running up costs.

“The federal Safe Streets and Communities Act adds longer and mandatory minimum jail sentences,” he says. “One effect is that more cases go to trial.”

Judges are trusted to decide guilt or innocence; they should also be trusted to impose appropriate sentences, Mulligan says.

One of the spinoffs of justice-system reform should be reduced costs, and the province should go full steam ahead, but provinces should also push the federal government to ease up on minimum sentences.