Editorial: Reform could backfire

One purpose of the federal government’s massive package of justice-system reforms is to speed up trials, but one of its measures might just slow things down.

It’s no secret that Canada’s court systems are clogged, so clogged that the Supreme Court set time limits on criminal cases two years ago. Some accused people are going free because their cases have been delayed too long.

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One proposal in Bill C-75 is to get rid of almost all preliminary hearings, except in cases that carry a life sentence. An estimated 87 per cent of preliminary hearings would be abolished.

Preliminary hearings are held in criminal cases, and judges decide whether those cases are strong enough to go to trial. It might seem that getting rid of an extra step in the process could speed things up, but the evidence is not clear.

Government MPs have argued that cases with prelims take four times as long as those without. And expanded obligations for disclosure of evidence make them less necessary.

However, prelims take up only about three per cent of court time, so even abolishing all of them would only make a dent in the courts’ work load. And there is a good argument that the hearings make the system more efficient by avoiding some trials altogether.

At the preliminary hearing, the accused and their lawyers have a chance to see how strong the Crown’s case is. Cases that are too weak can be abandoned before they tie up trial time. For those cases that go ahead, some legal issues can be resolved before trial, which speeds up the process.

The bill is the result of months of consultation, but this is one proposal that deserves another look.

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